Driverless Dreams

Google is back at it: driverless cars. In the age of Uber and ZipCar providing (nearly) pushbutton access to transportation for a fairly reasonable fee depending on your need, the driverless car sits atop the pyramid of transportation evolution.

One device combines the evolution of technology that began with the invention of the wheel. The driverless car is also the most impressive computer technology using sensors, maps, internet-connected computing – and that’s just to drive the car, not including creature comforts.

Like the idea of the horseless carriage that preceded the automobile, the driverless car has been much hyped and anticipated despite the early stage in the development process.

A who’s who of car companies is working on the technology as well, but the search engine giant has grabbed most of the press while boasting about the progress the technology has made over the years, the miles the cars have driven, and more.

But this is the first time we have seen a Google Car. While the press release indicates the parts are off-the-shelf and the company is working with partners, seeing a stand-alone vehicle, rather than a modified Toyota feels like an exciting step forward. Eventually Google, and the automakers, will need a car built to be driverless in order to really take the technology to the next level. Sensor placement and designs that work for a traditional vehicle, which places the main sensor package in the driver’s seat, do not need to be hard and fast rules for car design.

I’ve thought and written about driverless cars and their potential impact on society before, and as the technology gets closer the more I think about what it would be like to just summon a car – either my own or a taxi-type service – whenever I need a ride.

One issue with ZipCar, and rental services in general, is that the vehicles need to be returned to certain places to make them available once more and prevent the accumulation of cars in places they are unlikely to be checked out. Of course from time to time you can make an arrangement to pick up at the airport and drop off at another location, but normally the car is docked at a single location and you need to return it from whence it came. This problem goes away when the car can drive itself.

One crazy possibility with driverless cars could actually help bring the Amazon drones to reality: a drone carrier van. The idea that drones will be flying many miles carrying the types of products that are often ordered online, which can be large and/or heavy, has a few holes. But imagine if Amazon had a system of driverless vans roaming across cities and towns, carrying the items most of the way by truck, and then launching the drones for the “last mile” delivery. This could let larger packages be delivered by drone without needing to carry a fifty pound box thirty miles through the sky. Once the package is dropped off, the drone just returns to the van.

The number of tasks that can be managed by a driverless car, which can in turn reduce traffic, limit the need to large parking lots, can be a big step towards the sci-fi vision of the future that so many of us have in our heads.