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Sierra Daily

Oct 11, 2010

Look Ma! No Hands!

310 train
Imagine it’s the late 1800s and you’re trying to catch the 3:10 to Yuma. Getting 37 miles from Bisbee to the train station in Contention is easy enough: You’ve got the flexibility of a horse and buggy, with plenty of time for ambushes and shootouts or any other stops that you desire along the way. But what really gets your goat -- and what allows the baddies to catch up -- is that the train is running late. “Never can rely on 'em,” you mutter as you wage your climactic gun battle.

‘Twas ever thus. Americans have always favored personal mobility, our recent but faltering push for high-speed rail service nothwithstanding. And so along comes the news that Google researchers have logged more than 140,000 test miles in self-driving cars.

Selfdriving The push for so-called autonomous cars is not new: Here is a sweet article that summarizes American tinkerers’ fixation with robot cars, including “the amazing urbmobile” that graced a cover of Popular Science in 1967 (pictured at left). And the federal  Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been sponsoring its fascinating driverless car challenges since 2004. But Google’s experiments occurred on public roadways (with two engineers ready to assume control at any moment). “They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe,” writes Sebastian Thrun, a Google software engineer.

Alas, we’re still a long way off from, at least legally, cracking a cold one and reading Sierra magazine while piloting our Prius down the interstate. In his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), author Tom Vanderbilt explains how difficult it is to train a computer to make the decisions a human constantly makes (sometimes badly) while driving. In what Vanderbilt calls “myriad moments of uncertainty,” a driver (be it “Otto” or “Auto”)  must discern the difference between, say, a speed bump and a cyclist who has fallen in the street, and how to react differently when there’s a stopped vehicle or a traffic island up ahead. (Or, as happened in one of only two events that caused Google engineers to take the controls to avoid an accident, when a cyclist runs a red light.)

The Googlers see their research as a way to cut down on the 1.2 million traffic fatalities that occur each year worldwide, and to help create “highway trains of tomorrow” that “should cut energy consumption while also increasing the number of people that can be transported on our major roads.”

Of course, it’s all a sinister plot:  Lamenting the 52 minutes of time that the average commuter spends each day getting to and from work, engineer Thrun asks “Imagine being able to spend that time more productively.” Oh, I get it, Googling!

 --Reed McManus




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