Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Google’s Self-Driving Vehicle - More Gadget than Car?

About the author:
Beth Kelly is a freelance writer and blogger based in Chicago, IL. After graduating from DePaul University in 2011 she traveled throughout Southeast Asia teaching English, today she’s saving up for her next adventure and writing as much as she can in her free time. Find her on Twitter @bkelly_88

Flying cars and various other automatic automobiles have been the stuff of dreamers for decades - until now, when they really might be just around the corner (provided the reader lives in Mountain View, CA). Self-driving cars, which can navigate through traffic without any input from the driver, are currently being tested by Google. After extensive testing using automobiles supplied by third parties, Google has debuted its own prototypes, which can now be seen puttering around on public roads throughout the city.  

These cars feature an extensive array of sensor technology, cameras and other equipment that can observe conditions all around the vehicle, replicating the behavior of our own five senses.
Using data collected from these sources, the car creates a virtual model of the road, nearby vehicles, cyclists and all other objects in the vicinity. It then adjusts its speed and lane position accordingly, making turns and completing all other functions normally performed by a human driver.

While sitting in a car that drives itself may strike some as spooky or scary, most people who have had the opportunity to ride in one of these vehicles quickly became acclimated to the experience. These cars are programmed to act cautiously and to obey all the rules of the road. Google’s safety record attests to the dependability its autonomous fleet: the company’s vehicles have driven about a million miles during previous testing and have only experienced a handful of accidents (12 at the time of this article). Google spokespeople have stated that none of the accidents resulted in injury and that they were the fault of other motorists, not of the self-driving cars themselves. As the programming is further refined in coming years, car accidents could become freakishly rare events instead of a leading cause of death as they are today.

Only once these cars have fully been integrated onto public roads and into the “Internet of Things” will we comprehend their vast potential for change. Capable of communicating across wireless platforms, each of these small vehicles are essentially computers with wheels. Technological research company Gartner expects that there will be 250 million cars on the road by 2020 that are connected via wireless. Google seems to be preparing for this eventuality as it has developed Android Auto for use in cars and is rumored to be working on a more sophisticated OS that will be embedded directly within automotive hardware.

Taking this into account, we can speculate numerous ways in which the autonomous vehicle stands to impact the tech industry, as well as society more broadly. Merging Google’s new mobility tool with other devices within the IoT ecosystem will open up new and unforeseen avenues for convenience and connection. While wearables, home security and automation, and automobiles may stand alone for now, experts predict more cross-pollination as each area continues to expand.

The three most significant developments for personal enrichment in the 20th century have been the automobile, the personal computer and the Internet. As we move forward into the 21th century, it seems like they will all be fused together within Google's vehicles, creating a diverse marketplace for expansion. Robot taxis, unmanned delivery vehicles and on-demand rental cars are all likely applications of this technology. One can imagine combination automobile/offices, allowing small businesses to handle all their transportation, data storage, communications and other needs right inside their vehicles with no need for expensive real estate or landline phone and network infrastructure.

A few people in the automotive industry dismiss self-driving cars as a fad or as something that most drivers won't be terribly enthused about. Most industry insiders, however, realize the potential that these developments bring to the industry. The seriousness with which auto manufacturers contemplate these new advances is evidenced by the fact that many of them are working on their own models. Audi, Jaguar and Land Rover, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz are just a few of the big names developing their own iterations of the self-driving paradigm.

There are significant resources being invested today in cars that operate themselves. Even in the unlikely case that Google's efforts falter, plenty of other firms are ready to take up the slack. One way or another, completely automatic transportation machines will change the way people commute, communicate, and carry out almost every aspect of their lives. 

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