Self-driving cars offers chance for productivity

Kevin Wilson

My favorite cop-driver story comes from two friends in Portales mocking a street sign. The sign said, “Speed controlled by radar,” which led them to joke the driver was no longer responsible.

On cue, they got pulled over for speeding, and tested their logic.

“Actually, officer, that’s your fault,” the driver said as he handed over his paperwork.

The officer paused and replied, “Um, how so?”

“Well, the sign back there says your radar is controlling our speed. I think you need to slow me down out there.”

Lucky for them tasers weren’t popular yet, so the officer only chuckled and issued a warning.

Man, wait until we start blaming Google.

The Internet search giant is putting its hands on the wheel, as it announced it is in a very experimental stage of creating self-driving cars. The cars, with a human on board who can take over at any time, have logged 140,000 miles driving throughout California.

“Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to ‘see’ other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead,” Sebastian Thrun wrote on Google’s blog. “This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.”

The intent, Thrun later writes, is to reduce the 1.2 million lives annually lost to car crashes, and to make the average 52-minute working day commute more productive.

I commute far less than that for work most weeks, something closer to 25. Times five work days per week, that’s 125 minutes. I suppose I could:

• Watch an extra disc of “Frasier” on DVD. Seven seasons in, still not a bad episode.

• Figure out a new word. You know how when you’re on a long trip and you pass another vehicle? Then later, you stop at a gas station? And when you get back on the road, you pass that vehicle again? There’s got to be a word for the feeling you wasted your time passing them before.

• Shave and brush my teeth, thus saving the time I’d take doing those things at home. Perhaps I could throw a sponge in there, knock out the shower too and sleep another 30 minutes. Ah, to dream …

I’m sure GoogleGear (I want $1 million if you use that, Google) is going to be cost-prohibitive, even by Google standards. The Google Navigation system loaded on my phone is free, but that’s just a software download on my phone. I cringe at the cost of mounting cameras and laser range finders on my car … I gripe at the dealership when they charge me for floor mats.

There are concerns already for how powerful this could get. I can just imagine telling my car I have to find a rest stop, only to have it respond, “By my calculations, you had ample opportunity to go before we left.”

And how much insurance are you required to pay on a car you inhabit but don’t drive? And how upset would you be paying deductibles or rate increases for an accident Google got into? If Google’s finding ways to get around copyrights and privacy issues, I’m sure a little bit of insurance liability will be cake.

But who knows? Maybe continuing to drive will be a showing of bravado, kind of like how people buy Range Rovers when the most rugged thing they navigate is the KFC drive-thru. And there will be non-adapters; hey, I still know people without computers or cell phones, and their lives aren’t any less fulfilling. I’m sure they’ll still enjoy driving and going home to their corded phone any day of the week.

There’s a lot to be scared of with driverless driving. But there was a lot to be scared of with the Internet, and GPS tracking, and the looser content restrictions on cable television. In each case, we’ve found ways to use these for greater good.

And if we get there? Well, make sure you wave when you pass me on the road. But if I don’t wave back, I’ll be watching “Frasier” on my laptop. I might be on Season 10 by then.