Car accidents are a leading cause of death, especially for younger people.
In 2005, the UN said that the number of road traffic deaths and injuries would exceed the damage wrought by HIV by the year 2020. The World Health Organization (WHO) predicted that that road traffic injuries will rise to become the fifth leading cause of death by 2030.
Most of all, it’s human error that often causes accidents.
Nevada became the first jurisdiction in the world to allow autonomus vehicles on public roads last month. For the past few years, DARPA has been driving (no pun intended) towards driverless vehicles (think robot soldiers), and Google was behind the lobbying so that they could test their driverless project, which won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge.
Sebastian Thrun on Google’s driverless car (Youtube).
Google wouldn’t say why they choose Nevada, and while it could be that the Google founders like Burning Man, the state is known for its testing grounds – nuclear weapons and rocket cars.
Google has ben testing a fleet of seven vehicles, consisting of six Toyota Prii and an Audi TT. Their software drives the vehicles at the speed limit it has stored on its maps and maintains its distance from other vehicles using its system of sensors. The system provides an override that allows a human driver to take control of the car by stepping on the brake or turning the wheel, similar to cruise control systems already in cars. (source)
Most auto technology already uses sensors and cameras, but most of the advances available have simply been corrective or assisting technologies like the “Lane Keep Assist” ability of the 2010 Toyota Prius that uses a camera to detect lane markers and automatically steers the car toward the center of the lane.
Google says they’re just playing around with the idea, and no matter the commercial value of such an idea, the social benefits alone in preventing car accidents, by drunk or other human error, is an idea beyond worth merit. I see this as a positive alternative for drunk drivers, but chauffeurs might be out of work soon.
Safety is the sell here, and it may still be simply an assisting program, but even with the risk of computer error, I see huge potential for this to revolutionise the auto market and save lives.
Somehow I suspect the built in GPS sytem will be Google Earth.