It's actually been a few years since I first saw a video of the Google self-driving car in action. A friend of mine from high school had the luxury of being in an early test vehicle (a Prius in a parking garage), and he posted it to Facebook with the caption Autobots... roll out!
It was amazing for me to see how the car could swerve and navigate sharp turns around cones flawlessly, driving over 50 miles per hour in a small parking structure.
Since then, Google has had self-driving prototypes logging miles and only one accident... when the car was in manual override instead of automated mode.
Recently, The Oatmeal had a short blog post on the Google self-driving car. Its author seemed excited about the possibilities, though there are things to be worked out:
Despite the advantages over a human being in certain scenarios, however, these cars still aren't ready for the real world. They can't drive in the snow or heavy rain, and there's a variety of complex situations they do not process well, such as passing through a construction zone. Google is hoping with enough logged miles and data, eventually the cars will be able to handle all of this as well (or better) than a human could.
I have to say, as I've gotten older and have begun to view driving as more of a chore than an exciting adventure, the self-driving cars (Google or otherwise) cannot come soon enough.
When I was younger, I almost got into a couple of accidents, because I was too tired to drive. I would blast loud music, punch myself in the stomach, roll down my window in freezing winter temperatures in (sometimes vain) attempts to keep myself awake. Sometimes I'd pull over to rest. One time I actually fell asleep on the highway and woke up two lanes over (luckily, I didn't hit any other cars, and I didn't hit the guard rail, either—pure adrenaline alone kept me awake for the rest of the drive).
Even as I got older, my stamina in keeping awake got better, but I would often have to forsake a drink in order to be the designated driver. My wife and I have been out to dinner many times and have had to negotiate the "Do you want to get a glass of wine? It's okay if you do... I'll drive" dance.
How nice would it be to just tell your Google self-driving car "I've had too much to drink. Take me home." or "I'm feeling tired. Can you drive me home?" Or just have the opportunity to eat or text or do whatever in the car, while the car gets you home?
Now, I know some people are suspicious about automating things. After all, if all cars are controlled by a computer, isn't Skynet just a few years away? Could be. But that ship has already sailed. Cars are already computer controlled. And there have already been some out-of-driver-control accidents that have resulted in recalls (I'm thinking, for example, of the accidental acceleration of Priuses a few years back). At least in early prototypes, Google has included a manual override option.
That said, I predict that there will be at least one catastrophic failure of the self-driving car that will result in hundreds, if not thousands of deaths. It's a little but of the trolley problem. Each of those deaths will be tragic, but they won't compare to the 30,000+ motor vehicle deaths that happen every year in the U.S. since 1946.
My biggest gripe with a self-driving car will be the navigation! One time, Google Maps took me and my wife to a random street in Redondo Beach, when we were trying to go to the Getty Malibu. Another time, we tried to have Google Maps take us to White Castle, and we ended up at some random house in a suburban street. I'm hoping that as the self-driving aspect improves, so will the general Google Maps navigation... at least for getting home.