Google has last week unveiled the latest incarnation of the driverless cars it has been developing for the past four years. Unlike earlier versions, pedals and steering wheels have been eliminated altogether in the new pod-like prototype cars, so the driver is no longer able to take control manually (apparently a good thing as we tend to make bad decisions in emergency situations, according to Google’s test experiences).
The vehicles – which will run on electricity – are simply equipped with a button for ‘start’ and a panic button for ‘stop’. Sensors with 360-degree vision and advanced robotic engineering do the rest, theoretically far more reliably and safely than humans.
And rather than having to own a car, people would simply summon a driverless car-cum-taxi via a mobile phone app. All extraordinary stuff: bad news for parking wardens, very good news for hospital emergency departments and the environment. It also promises greater economy.
The New York Times cites some interesting research showing that “Manhattan’s 13,000 taxis made 470,000 trips a day. Their average speed was 10 to 11 mph, carrying an average of 1.4 passengers per trip with an average wait time of five minutes.
“In comparison, the report said, it is possible for a futuristic robot fleet of 9,000 shared automated vehicles hailed by smartphone to match that capacity with a wait time of less than one minute.
“Assuming a 15 per cent profit, the current cost of a taxi service would be about $4 per trip mile, while in contrast, it was estimated, a Manhattan-based driverless vehicle fleet would cost about 50 cents per mile.”
The UK’s national Sunday newspaper, The Observer, also makes some important points, stating, “Google is, par excellence…an engineering company. And engineers dislike the untidy irrationality of real life.”
The article describes the status quo of one car per owner, the expense, the space required – not to mention the danger to life and the environment – saying that “engineers see governments and local authorities driven to distraction, if not to bankruptcy, by the costs of providing roads and infrastructure to support our motoring habit…and they think: this is nuts. So, say Google’s engineers, why don’t we stop thinking of cars as possessions and start thinking of them as services?”