Google takes giant leap in self-driving cars

Flash-dashboard: KPMG says self-driving cars could prevent 25,000 serious accidents per year.

Will self-driving cars change the world for the better? The first completely self-driving taxis are about to hit the road. Some say they will revolutionise our lives sooner than we think.

“Fully self-driving cars are here,” declared Waymo chief executive John Krafcik on Tuesday, as the driverless car revolution raced into a bold new phase.

Part of Google’s AI empire, Waymo self-driving taxis will now be released onto the streets in fully autonomous mode. This means that nobody will be in the driver’s seat to make corrections if things go wrong.

At first the service will only be available in Phoenix, Arizona, and only for Alphabet employees. However, the company plans to make driverless taxis open to the public, but it is unclear how soon.

Waymo has pumped over $1 billion into the project. In tests its cars travelled over 3.5m miles getting into 14 minor collisions. Despite these bumps along the way, the company has beaten rivals Uber and Tesla to offering fully autonomous taxis to some members the public.

And it may only be a short while until they are everywhere. Forbes predicts that there will be 10m self-driving cars on the roads by 2020, with one in four cars expected to be self-driving by 2030.

Driverless cars could completely change the world as we know it. When Professor John Leonard rode in a Google prototype, he described it as like being at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina — the site where the Wright Brothers successfully tested the aeroplane, launching a groundbreaking era of human flight.

Driverless cars have been compared to the humble elevator by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk. Elevators may seem low-tech, but they revolutionised human life by making vast cities of towering skyscrapers practical to live in. Musk predicts that we will get so used to the machines that human driving will be outlawed as being “too dangerous”.

Indeed, some think that a world of self-driving cars will be much safer. Human error is estimated to cause 94% of road accidents. Professor Kevin Curran points out that, unlike human drivers, “Computers don’t get bored, tired, or distracted.”

But will self-driving cars change the world for the better?

Robo-cab

“Of course,” say some. Obviously fewer people will die in car accidents. But deeper changes are coming. Soon we will stop owning cars entirely and rely on cheap self-driving taxis. Cities will be unclogged of traffic. Concrete car parks will become green spaces. And humans will devote hours previously spent driving to creative pursuits. The future is bright.

“Don’t be so sure,” reply others. There are over 350,000 taxi drivers in England alone. What happens to them and millions of others across the world once driverless cars destroy their jobs? What is more, a computerised transport system run by one software company could be hacked. If that happens, entire cities will grind to a halt.

You Decide

  1. Would you take a ride from a self-driving car?
  2. Will self-driving cars make the world a better place?

Activities

  1. Write down three reasons why self driving cars are good, and three reasons why they are bad. Share your reasons with the class. Did you come up with similar ideas? Take a class vote on the question “Should we be excited about self-driving cars?”
  2. Do some research into great historical advances in transportation. You could look into the invention of the aeroplane, the construction of the railways, or the invention of the internal combustion engine. Why was each particular breakthrough so important? Do you think that self-driving cars will be the biggest breakthrough in transportation ever?

Some People Say...

“You can’t have a person driving a two-ton death machine.”

Elon Musk

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
According to current UK law a qualified driver is required to be behind the wheel of a car at all times, and only some automatic functions are permitted. In December last year Uber released self-driving vehicles onto the roads of San Francisco without a permit. They were immediately ordered by state authorities to stop the cars operating.
What do we not know?
We do not know when the Waymo taxis will be available for use by the general public, or when the taxi service will be rolled out in other cities and countries. Nor do we know how much it will cost to use one of the taxis. Whilst the vehicles seem to work well in Arizona, it is unclear how successful they will be in more dense and chaotic urban environments.

Word Watch

Waymo
The Waymo company grew out of Google’s self-driving car project. It is a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc.
Fully autonomous
There are five levels used by companies to classify the autonomy of vehicles. Waymo’s announcement will take their car to level four, meaning that the vehicle is capable of independently performing all driving functions in almost all road conditions. Level 5 is reached when self-driving vehicles can match human performance in extreme conditions such as on dirt roads.
Wright Brothers
Generally credited with inventing and flying the world’s first aeroplane in 1903.
94%
According to the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey, released by the US Department of Transportation in 2015.
350,000
According to 2017 British Government statistics there are 356,300 taxi driver licenses in England.