Google’s incredible achievements as a search engine has led to their very name being synonymous with finding things on the internet. Their advancement into maps, email and phones have all been greatly successful as well. But these are just the information-absorbing platforms on which they will build the true future of their company.
When California Governor Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill permitting the use of "driverless cars" in his state, he heralded the advent of automation and the various ways it will utterly change the face of our society. Google has spent years developing cars that can drive themselves around complex metropolitan streets, perform high-speed emergency maneuvers and react to a wide variety of external factors. Soon, car manufacturers across the world will be utilizing Google's incredible software to universally change the driving experience.
Forbes published a recent article, focusing on the way Google's driverless cars might reduce traffic, collisions, and the overall number of vehicles on the street. By their estimates, over $300 billion dollars could be saved in damages, hospital bills, loss of productivity, legal costs and travel delays.
Sebastian Thrun, the lead engineer behind this incredible innovation, has been on a crusade to make driving safer since his friend died in a car crash many years ago. You can see his TED talk here, where he explains Google's new technology and how it will save lives for generations to come. It may seem like we’re one step closer to a scientific utopia, but let’s fully examine what impact this technology will have on us.
Firstly, let’s recognize that automated cars aren’t going to create new jobs … in fact they’re going to do quite the opposite. The field of mechanics will be entirely comprised of people who have a thorough understanding of computing and electronics, drastically shrinking the number of individuals who are capable of performing the task. Trucking companies will be able to use far fewer trucks, because they’ll run 24 hours a day and not be limited by a driver who needs sleep. Farmers will easily be able to maintain thousands of acres of farmland, using tractors that drive themselves, making their need for inefficient workers redundant. As we transition away from gas-powered vehicles we’ll see gas stations disappear, replaced by Tesla’s recently announced free solar-powered refueling stations.
One look at a New York City street will tell you a lot about other significant changes. Why would we have any cars parked along the street, cluttering up space when everything moves in an automated seamless fashion? Need to get somewhere? Simply hit the button on your phone app and a nearby “taxi” station will send over a vehicle to your location. Actual taxi drivers are certainly done for. Want to “rent” a vehicle? Why not sync with other people in the city who are going on a similar route and save money by sharing a car?
Overall, car use will become temporary and rent-based. Sales will go down and dealerships will disappear. Many cities will lose millions of dollars in revenue from no longer being able to ticket citizens over parking violations.
This is going to be a massive hit to our economy, a complete game changer. Moreover, there will be a vicious debate about human autonomy versus computer autonomy. What if I want to drive my car? Will I be permitted to? Will the controls over these vehicles be tightly regulated, with computer tampering being a punishable felony offense? Ford recently introduced an open-source kit to allow hackers and computer experts to augment certain car controls like navigation. What about hackers that can over-ride safety protocols? You could easily kidnap or murder someone if you can control the 60mph box they're sitting in.
We haven’t even seen the introduction of these vehicles into the mainstream marketplace, but they’re already generating heated debate. This is a necessarily progression, but the ripple effects it will cause need to be planned for and addressed with great political foresight. Whatever else may happen, a generation from now Google will be known as the self-driving car company, and people will fondly remember that they also once had a search engine.