How close are we to mass-market driverless cars? Google is working on it

I’ve never minded taking the Skytrain, West Coast Express, or buses. One of the reasons is because I don’t have to worry about my surroundings and the context of my transportation route. I can check emails on my smartphone, read a magazine, or just plain nap. Cars require much more work and constant attention to the road.

Google could eventually eliminate this problem, as it continues to test its thus-far highly successful autonomous cars. Using artificial intelligence software that senses its surroundings and mimics (safe) human decisions, these test cars have driven more than 1,000 miles with no human intervention – including San Fran’s infamously steep and curvy Lombard Street – and over 140,000 miles with “occasional” human control.

Accidents? One – and it was another driver’s fault. (The Google car was rear-ended while stopped at an intersection.)GOOGLE

Robot cars, or robot drivers rather, have many benefits over their human counterparts. From the New York Times:

Robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated, engineers argue. They speak in terms of lives saved and injuries avoided — more than 37,000 people died in car accidents in the United States in 2008. The engineers say the technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing cars to drive more safely while closer together. Because the robot cars would eventually be less likely to crash, they could be built lighter, reducing fuel consumption. But of course, to be truly safer, the cars must be far more reliable than, say, today’s personal computers, which crash on occasion and are frequently infected.

Revolutionizing the automobile is a far leap from search engines, and even Silicon Valley nature in general, which stands to prove how ambitious the company is.

Autonomous vehicles are several years away from mass-market production (speculation suggests eight years at the soonest). But technology grows exponentially, and nobody should be surprised if they arrive sooner on small-scales. What will likely be the slowing factor is us humans putting our lives in trust of robots – and what company wants to risk getting sued after one of its vehicles kills a family?

Still, the concept is riveting, and the notion of it becoming a worldwide reality even more so.

Would you drive one of Google’s robot-driven cars?