A rooftop sensor uses up to 64 lasers to build a 3D map of the surroundings.
Additional sensors are programmed to detect pedestrians, cars, road work, and other obstacles at a distance of up to two football fields away.
A Waymo self-driving car on a test track in California (above)
Are Driverless Cars a Good Idea?
Driverless cars have left the realm of science fiction and are now hitting American roads. About three dozen companies in the U.S.—including automakers and tech companies—are working on self-driving cars. Waymo (a Google spinoff) has a fleet of 100 self-driving Chrysler minivans on California roads. Uber is testing about 100 driverless cars in both Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Tempe, Arizona.
Ford has about 30 self-driving test vehicles on the roads in California, Michigan, and Arizona, and hopes to triple that number by the end of this year.
But there have been setbacks: In March, Uber briefly suspended its program after a self-driving car crashed in Tempe. (No one was injured.) Advocates say autonomous vehicles will make roads safer, but critics say the technology isn’t yet ready for prime time.
Self-driving technology has the potential to save millions of lives and improve quality of life for people around the world.
Each year, 1.3 million people die worldwide in car accidents. Ninety-four percent of those crashes are due to human error. This is a tragedy that innovation can help solve. Computers are learning to perceive better, calculate faster, and react earlier than a human driving a car. As soon as we can demonstrate to safety agencies that a computerized car can drive more safely than a person, self-driving vehicles should be put on our roads in large numbers and without delay.
Self-driving cars will also accelerate another trend we’re already seeing: the shift toward more ride sharing. Self-driving cars are more efficient for ride sharing because they don’t need lunch breaks and a computer can integrate routes faster than people.
In the U.S., 10 percent of Uber riders under 30 already say they’ve given up their cars or are no longer planning to buy a car. Those numbers will grow substantially as self-driving cars make ride sharing more efficient and therefore more popular.
Computers are learning to react faster than humans driving a car.
A future in which more people are ride sharing has many other benefits. We’ll need fewer cars overall, which will reduce road congestion and free up parking spaces in our cities. That will mean far less wasted time stuck in traffic and looking for parking. Furthermore, cities with fewer parking lots will have more room for new businesses, housing, and public places like parks and schools. Fewer cars on our roads also means a lot less gas burned and a lot less pollution coming out of tailpipes. That’s good for the environment.
These many benefits are part of why Uber has launched pilot-program fleets of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Tempe, Arizona. Real-world testing is critical to getting this technology ready for nationwide use.
A better future is within reach. We have the technology. While it won’t happen overnight, self-driving will be an important part of the future of transportation.
—EMILY DUFF BARTEL,
Product Manager for Advanced Technology Group, Uber
We are assured that, in the glorious future, driverless cars will save lives, reduce accidents, ease congestion, curb energy consumption, and lower harmful emissions. These promises contain elements of truth. But the data is nowhere near complete. Even if these claims do eventually materialize, the near- and mid-term picture is considerably less rosy, and significant areas of concern remain.
Take, for instance, the supposed safety benefits of self-driving cars that include avoiding tens of thousands of highway deaths each year. The truth is, no one knows for sure how many lives could be saved by driverless cars, because data on the role of human error in crashes relies heavily on self-reporting and is therefore incomplete. In an automated future in which many driverless cars are operating in close proximity at high speed, accidents are likely to be unpredictable and, on occasion, larger and more grisly than the ones we know today.
The truth is, no one knows how many lives could be saved by driverless cars.
Then there’s infrastructure to consider. Many of these new-generation cars require smooth roads, with clearly painted lines, to safely position themselves. Potholes, worn paint, and other irregularities—standard on too many of our roads—will potentially become even greater hazards. Our infrastructure is already severely underfunded. Where will the resources come from to maintain and repair roads and bridges to this new, higher standard?
And what about the interim period when conventional vehicles share the road with automated ones? One of the claims made for driverless cars is that they don’t need safety gear like heavy steel safety cages to protect passengers in a crash, making them lighter and more fuel-efficient. That’s great until an old-school pickup truck T-bones your Google car.
The risk of distracted driving is one of the strongest arguments for driverless cars. But distracted driving could be reduced simply by disabling phones in moving cars.
Driverless cars might eventually have many benefits. But at the moment, those potential benefits are outweighed by many problems.
—JAMIE LINCOLN KITMAN,
New York Bureau Chief, Automobile Magazine