Could the future of cars be computerized?


Photo provided by

Google’s own design for a self-driving car.

Evan Rocha, Staff Writer

A recent technological innovation has captured the attention of many hopeful commuters and a few tech giants. Self-driving cars, that is, cars that can navigate using computer programming and without human interference, are becoming a reality through companies like Google and Volkswagen and through various colleges like MIT and Carnegie Mellon.

A self-driving, or “autonomous” car, is one that can navigate to or from a location without the assistance of human direction or mechanical guidance. An automatic car, a concept explored as far back as the 50s, involves guiding cars using cues such as a magnetic rail under the vehicle or a pre-planned programmed route. The creation of autonomous cars could allow for passengers to ride in a vehicle, much like a personalized version of public transport, but directly to a destination, and without hassle.

The concept appeals to a great many drivers, and for unsurprising reasons. Many people dislike driving, and most people dislike long commutes. An autonomous system that cuts out every day hassle will make tons of people interested. Some question the safety of self-driving cars, as they may be completely independent from human control should any accidents or mistakes occur that the computer can’t fix. Proponents of self-driving cars often respond that the cars will make roads safer due to the elimination of human error, and that these measures will be unnecessary.

Google is perhaps the most famous company currently exploring the potential autonomous car market. Despite immense secrecy from the company, bits of information about the project, codenamed “Alphabet” have been released. It involves a fleet of cars; some Priuses, Audi TTs, and the Lexus RX450h, as well as a design of Google’s own, all fitted with over $225,000 in navigation and computational equipment. The vehicles have occasionally been spotted driving through various large cities in the US, presumably gathering data and making test runs for research purposes. The vehicles have been in 14 crashes, 13 of which were caused by human error, either from other drivers or the human passenger of the Google vehicle taking manual control.

However, the system is far from perfect. We know that the Google cars run using a high-tech digital map of the city they’re being used in, with exact measurements for where traffic lights and signs would be in relation to the car, well before the car approaches them. The car is still autonomous, and it can guide itself to any location within one of these maps, but outside of them it loses reliability. A traffic light hanging too low or a bent stop sign could confuse the laser-guided navigation. The vehicles are also rather slow (compared to normal cars) and the $225,000 in computational equipment doesn’t help to make it affordable.

However, the head of design of Google’s self-driving car project, YooJung Ahn, was quoted saying that the goal of the cars was not to “consider the product as one more car on the road.” And that “We [Google] want to switch the paradigm.” They dream of seeing self-driving cars one day seeing a level of use akin to smartphones or the internet. In a few decades, they predict that such vehicles will become mass-produced and widely available and affordable.