Right Here is Fine, Mr. Car

Driverless cars have been something of a holy grail for science fiction fans, futurists, and engineers alike. Even in the 50s, science fiction concept artists would draw Tin Man-like robot chauffeurs for the happy nuclear (in more than one sense of the word) American family. While from a pure interface design standpoint, it doesn’t make much sense to have a robot with arms and fingers gripping a steering wheel, people in every decade have needed some way to humanize their technology. Rosie the Robot may have been a less efficient housekeeper with two legs rather than four or six, but a human-like design usually won out in popular culture.

At the same time, engineers and technicians, both at civilian research facilities and military outfits, have been trying to make self-driving vehicles a reality for many years. Unconcerned with friendly appearances, they have mounted edgy and wire-studded boxes on top of cars, attached cameras and sensors to the vehicles, and generally created some very odd-looking and cobbled-together contraptions.

Until recently, success has largely eluded them. Computers have simply not been sophisticated enough to perform the trillions of calculations that a human being can do on the fly (and not just a human being – the humble fly performs feats of aerial acrobatics that are currently completely unattainable for machines).

Traditional workarounds for these problems were to narrow down the tasks at hand. Many hours went into creating autonomous driverless vehicles that would follow an optical or magnetic path that’s embedded within the road itself. This could work for some limited applications; unfortunately, such vehicles would be utterly unable to handle an unusual situation and would need specialized tracks and infrastructure.

Recently, computers have caught up. DARPA, the ubiquitous technological arm of the Defense Department, announced a well-rewarded race in 2004, seeking driverless vehicles that could overcome a rather punishing, 150-mile desert course.

In the first year, not a single car made it to the finish. However, the very next year, there were a whopping 5 finalists that managed to traverse grueling off-road conditions with no intervention from a human driver.

A mesa is one thing, but city traffic is something entirely different. No developer had managed to teach a car how to interact with other vehicles on the road, as well as pests such as pedestrians and bicyclists. Enter Google – over several years, the company secretly developed a computer system that could brave traffic in cities and on highways alike. After testing their brainchild over 200,000 miles of road, Google unveiled the wonder to the world in 2010.

While the legal implications of driverless cars, such as liability issues, have yet to be untangled, legislators are catching up with the times. In 2011, Nevada became the first state to allow autonomous vehicles on its road. It will certainly not be the last. One has to wonder if the whole endeavor will go meta, and we will have driverless auto shipping companies delivering driverless cars.

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