Day 840: Baby You Can Drive My Car – Or Better Still, Your Robot Can Do It

originally published April 19, 2014

As I trepidatiously shuffle toward the edge of the board, ready to leap into the warm waters of turning 40 this year, I realize it’s time to release my hopes of seeing the skies filled with flying cars. That Jetsons-style future-scape is not going to cross paths with my personal timeline, just as I probably won’t experience the food replicator from Star Trek or the Cleveland Browns winning a Super Bowl. That’s okay, I can live with that.

But what we lack in personal airborne transport (I don’t see the jetpack taking hold as any type of standard either) we are making up for in robot technology. If we can’t buzz the upper windows of the Chrysler Building in our 2033 Buick Fly-lark then at the very least we can have a nap in the back seat while our car safely transports us to work and parks itself. And from the looks of things, I won’t have to wait until my octogenarian days to experience this.

The robot-car, or autonomous vehicle, is a reality. And we can thank Google, the company that has created the technology to allow us to accurately simulate the experience of walking in a strange city with blurred-out faces, for having successfully tested a driverless car to the extent where it seems almost marketable. This idea has been in the works for a long time.

In 1926 the Houdina Radio Control Co., which had been founded by a former US Army electrical engineer named Francis P. Houdina, demonstrated a radio-controlled driverless car through the crowded streets of midtown Manhattan. It was a novelty and it very much required human control in some fashion, but it was a start. The experiment garnered enough attention to piss off Harry Houdini, who stormed into Houdina’s offices with his secretary and trashed the place, believing Houdina to be capitalizing on Harry’s famous name. The 20’s were a wild decade.

The notion was brought up again at the 1939 World’s Fair, suggesting that circuits embedded in the road, coupled with radio signals could facilitate a driverless freeway. The idea was still science fiction at this point, but there was enough science in that fiction to merit some serious attention. In 1958 an RCA Labs team actually tested something similar to this on a stretch of Nebraska highway.

A pile of experimental detector circuits were embedded into the pavement along the side of the road. GM contributed a pair of cars decked out with special radio receivers and warning devices that could simulate steering, braking and accelerating. The demonstration was repeated in New Jersey in 1960, and the gobsmacked reporters who rode in the vehicles were assured that such a system could be put into place nation-wide by 1975.

Ohio State University continued to plug at this conundrum in the 60’s, and before long the Bureau of Public Roads was fielding bids from four states for the opportunity to develop the first full-on electronically controlled highway. It never came to be. In England, a driverless Citroen DS was tested – this time controlled by magnetic cables embedded in the road – and the Transport and Road Research Laboratory insisted a full-on upgrade of England’s roadways could be paid off by the year 2000, with a 40% reduction in accidents.

Their funding was yanked a few years later.

In the 1980’s, a team at DARPA – that’s the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the place we should all want to work – developed the successful (if woefully unattractive) Autonomous Land Vehicle (ALV) pictured above. Using laser radar and computer vision, the ALV was able to travel up to 19mph (31km/h) through a complex test course with nothing embedded in the road below. Then in 1991, Congress passed a bill which instructed the US Department of Transportation to demonstrate a fully automatic vehicle/highway system by 1997. Shit was finally on.

The leaps made throughout the 90’s are what brought us to where we are today, with fully functional robot cars swooping around major cities on a daily basis (though still only in test mode). Google’s driverless car is part of a project led by Sebastian Thrun, a guy whose name will probably be taught as a significant part of our era’s history someday. Sebastian had not only co-invented Google’s Street View, but his robotic vehicle (Stanley, built around a Volkswagen Touareg) won a $2 million prize in 2005 from the Department of Defense. This is the guy we want working on this technology.

The Google Car – first demonstrated on a rigged-up Toyota Prius – features a 64-beam laser mounted on top, which allows the car to generate a 3D map of the world around it. It then combines these readings with the high-res maps in its memory and it can steer its way wherever you’d need to go. It takes about $150,000 in extra equipment, but the car also accounts for stoplights, signs, speed limits and other traffic.

Presently there are four states – Nevada, Florida, California and Michigan – who have passed bills allowing for testing of driverless cars on their streets. Humans are required to be present in the cars at all times, and can take immediate steering and brake control whenever necessary, just as they can with a typical cruise control system. But it doesn’t seem to be necessary. There have been only two incidents in which a Google car has been in an accident: in 2011, a Google car near Mountain View, California was involved in a crash when a human was manually driving it, and in 2010 one of the cars was rear-ended while properly stopped at a traffic light. Both were clearly human error.

Google has no plans to market this technology commercially, though they’re considering developing a business to sell the tech to car manufacturers. At this time GM, Ford, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Audi, Nissan, Toyota, BMW and Volvo are all working on driverless systems. Just as hybrids and electrics have begun to seep into mainstream vehicles, we are likely to see an influx of Google-style driverless cars by the end of the decade. At present the technology is way too expensive to land on the showroom floor, but it exists, and it’s not too much of a stretch to believe we’ll see it in high-end luxury vehicles soon enough.

And luxury is really what it’s about, isn’t it? The blind, the underage and the astoundingly shitty drivers (of which there are many) could find their way swiftly and safely to their destination, and drunk driving fatalities would plummet. Insurance companies would have to pay out a lot less (which would result in a reduction in premiums for us, he said, unable to keep a straight face), and local police could spend less time enforcing traffic laws and more time hunting down the nation’s real criminals, like those who download movies illegally.

This technology is wonderful. Sure, it would destroy the industries of bus and taxi drivers, but then we could see a spike in the field of constructing sassy 50’s-style robot cab drivers for conversational purposes. If I don’t get the flying car, I’ll take the sassy robot.

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