"All or Nothing" Self-Driving Car Is a Blessing and a Curse
Larry Alton
JUN 24, 2015 19:02 PM
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"All or Nothing" Self-Driving Car Is a Blessing and a Curse

by Larry Alton

Beginning this summer, Google is going to roll out its self-driving car prototypes onto real American roads. It’s a big step forward for autonomous, self-driving cars, though this technology has been experimented with and tested for the past several years. In this test, a handful of prototypes will travel throughout Mountain View, California, each with a human safety driver aboard, to rigorously test their feasibility as real-world vehicles.


And Google’s goal for the public rollout of this technology? By 2020, in five short years, Google expects these self-driving cars to be ready for public purchase and widespread integration.


Of course, there are dozens of hurdles that will need to be overcome by then. The legal implications of owning self-driving car technology could make Google liable for any accidents caused by their vehicles. Insurance companies have no idea what to expect from self-driving cars. The technology can never be programmed to respond to every possible scenario—as some freak accidents are unpredictable—and of course, human drivers need time to fully adapt to the presence of self-driving cars, both as standby human operators and as pedestrians.


This adaptation process has caused a stark divide between Google and other automakers. For most of our history, technological evolution has been a slow and incremental process. We’re used to clunky, simple versions of technology that gradually evolve into smaller, sharper, sleeker, more comprehensive forms, and as a result, we gradually move away from older forms of technology.


Automakers like Honda, Nissan, and Toyota are keen on this approach. There are several elements of self-driving car technology that are fully functional and thoroughly tested to be effective today; for example, many modern Toyota vehicles are equipped with various accident-preventative features like automatic braking or warnings when a car drifts outside of a lane. Rather than launching a car that can drive itself independently, these companies would rather maintain the old system of human-powered vehicles, with gradually introduced upgrades that make driving safer for everyone.


Why Google Stands Apart


Google has taken the opposite approach. After already logging millions of test miles with their autonomous cars, Google has ample technology and sufficient data to start releasing these features publicly, one at a time if need be. However, they’re choosing to forge ahead with development of a fully self-driving car. It’s an “all or nothing” approach that they refuse to compromise, and it’s drawn both praise and criticism.


Google’s perspective is that cars will be safer when they’re driven by computers, rather than people—and their perspective is certainly valid, with research showing that 94 percent of all accidents are attributable to human error. But this perspective has led them to an uncompromising vision that what the world needs, for safety and convenience alike, is the fully autonomous vehicle released as soon as possible. Any gradual or piecemeal releases would only be distractions along the way.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


The key benefit to Google’s approach is the timeline. Because they aren’t wasting time with smaller-scale launches, the autonomous car will hit public markets far sooner than it would in any other scenario. It will also force legal and regulatory changes to happen much faster—otherwise, a gradual scale-up could lead to a tangled network of messy transitional plans and temporary measures that complicate the process.


On the other hand, waiting to release everything at once could have a “shock” effect that leads to a more difficult adjustment period for the general public. People could be slower to adapt and trust the technology, and counterintuitively, a quicker rollout could actually lead to a delayed scale of adoption.


More importantly, delaying the release of autonomous driving technology could have short-term implications for user safety. If certain features of the self-driving car, like object avoidance or traffic detection, could increase safety and save lives by being released before a fully functional driverless car, withholding those pieces of technology could be seen as unscrupulous. Of course, Google would argue that the move for a completely driverless car would save far more lives than any short-term institutions of elemental technology, but the question is still significant to consider.


No matter how you look at it, the next five years are going to be a messy, confusing, uncertain nightmare for Google and automakers alike as the self-driving car becomes a reality. There’s no doubt that Google’s vision for public roads with self-driving cars by 2020 will come to fruition, but the path they’re taking to get there is questionable. Committing themselves to an “all or nothing approach,” Google’s team may very well herald in an era where that 94 percent of human-attributable accidents are no longer a reality sooner rather than later, but may also hinder the short-term potential of new safety features for modern vehicles.


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