Google puts technology at the wheel

Will the self-drive car have an impact?

Google’s new autonomous vehicle neither has a steering wheel nor pedals. Photograph: EPA/Google

Google’s new autonomous vehicle neither has a steering wheel nor pedals. Photograph: EPA/Google

Sat, May 31, 2014, 01:00

Google generated a lot of attention during the week when it gave the world a glimpse of the future, as only it can, this time with a new version of the company’s long-gestating self-driving car.

Unlike the version that we’ve seen up to now, which was a modded-up Lexus SUV, this new autonomous vehicle looked like something out of a Pixar movie, a small bubble car with a subtly smiling face on the front, and entirely lacking a steering wheel or pedals.

Those “legacy” features have been dispensed with, according to Chris Urmson, head of Google’s self-driving car project, because drivers can’t really be trusted to leave the car to drive itself, grabbing the wheel at the merest hint of danger. The cutesiness of the design, we can surmise, is a clever way of surmounting some of those inevitable fears about autonomous vehicles.

Undoubtedly, given the vast technical and regulatory challenges, it is likely to be decades before these things dominate our roads, but there is little reason to believe that day won’t come.

But autonomous automobiles (“auto autos”?) will transform far more than merely what it means “to drive”; over time, they will be deeply disruptive on a large economic and social scale, reshaping our cities and destroying entire industries.

While the most obvious benefit will be a dramatic reduction in road deaths – most crashes are caused by human error – such cars will also allow for a gradual change in urban design. For one thing, the increased safety levels will lead to much higher road density as the cars will be able to drive much closer together, and will dramatically reduce time wasted in traffic jams.

They will also be considerably more fuel efficient.

As Google’s Urmson points out, most cars sit idle 90-95 per cent of the time, but self-driving cars lend themselves to sharing rather than individual ownership. In effect, they will operate more like taxis than cars – one impact will be far less precious city-centre space given over to car-parking. However, some urban design theorists suspect that more efficient self-driving cars will give rise to further suburban sprawl, as longer commuting distances become more feasible.

Related to that is the somewhat more intangible change in the “opportunity cost” of commuting – suddenly, the stressful, wasteful period every morning and evening will become a productive and even relaxing part of the day. That’s a lot of time suddenly freed up for other uses.

But some other, more problematic, changes will also be inevitable – the taxi, trucking and delivery industries are unlikely to survive in their current states, meaning a lot of jobs will be lost. In that sense, self-driving cars presage a future when pervasive robotics become a real factor in employment levels – and the repercussions could be ugly.

Like all such prognostications, it’s prudent to acknowledge that the reality might significantly differ from the vision set out here, but don’t let the cute appearance fool you – the self-driving car is going to have a major impact on the way life is lived in the 21st century.