Is Google's self-driving car the future of transport?

Image of Google self-driving car
They see me rollin', they hatin'
"It's capable of reaching face-melting speeds of 25mph and is meant to look ‘friendly’, in order get people used to the idea of driverless cars. We just think it looks a bit like Darth Vader’s helmet"
  • | by Kristian Dando

While automotive safety technology has progressed in leaps and bounds over the past decade, the real problem with cars usually tends to be the person behind the wheel. In fact, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents reckons that 95% of road traffic accidents are caused by some sort of human error.

So, what if there was a way of taking a person out of the equation altogether? Well, in its seemingly never-ending quest to improve and simplify our lives, Google has announced that it will be building its very own driverless car which could be on Californian roads within a few years.

The American search engine and technology giant has previously modified production cars like the Toyota Prius to run without a driver. But the new prototype is an entirely new car which has no pedals or steering wheel, just a stop-start button. It’s capable of reaching face-melting speeds of 25mph and is meant to look ‘friendly’, in order get people used to the idea of driverless cars. We just think it looks a bit like Darth Vader’s helmet.

“The main reason the team and I decided to build this prototype vehicle is that we can do a better job than we can do with an existing vehicle,” said Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder and head of its so-called ‘X-Lab’ long-term research division. “The project is about changing the world for people who are not well-served by transportation today.”

The insurance angle

Image of Google self-driving car

One of the big questions thrown up by the potential rise of the driverless car is that of insurance.

The immediate conclusion to jump to would be that cars without drivers would spell the end of car insurance altogether. But this isn’t strictly true. “In theory, it should drastically reduce the chance of accidents, but there’s still the chance of the car being damaged itself,” says car insurance expert at Gocompare.com, Lee Griffin.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) has given a cautious welcome to the prospect of autonomous automobiles. Scott Pendry, policy adviser at the ABI, says on the organisation’s blog: “In the coming years insurers will be watching the development of this technology very closely, with a particular eye on system reliability, ensuring that the reasons for system failures are fully understood and the technology is tried and tested.

“One thing is certain; driverless cars have huge potential to significantly reduce the number of accidents on our roads and the insurance industry is keen to work with vehicle manufacturers, regulators and the legal community to facilitate the wide-scale adoption of this potentially life-changing and life-saving technology.”

Google’s biggest hits and misses

The driverless car might just end up being one of its biggest successes yet – well, if driverless cars are actually made legal anywhere other than California.

With is multi-billion dollar turnover and can-do approach to turning its hand to anything, you’d think that everything Google touches is destined to become gold. But historical evidence suggests that not everything from the big ‘G’ is destined for greatness…

The Hits…

Image of Google doodle made of lego

Image: Antonio Manfredonio

The search engine

The company’s eponymous search engine was where it made its fortune, swatting aside rivals like Alta Vista and Ask Jeeves to become the undisputed top dog in the online discoverability game.

Its principle rival, Microsoft’s Bing (or ‘Because It’s Not Google’, as some tech jesters have nicknamed it), has a lot of ground to catch up - there are around two million searches on Google every single minute. Not bad for a site which was originally called ‘Backrub’.

Google Chrome

Google’s own rapid, ultra-simple browser entered the scene in 2008, and very quickly made rivals like Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari look rather clunky.

In addition, its Incognito mode has proved a big hit with web surfers who enjoy a bit of privacy. According to CNET, Chrome has been downloaded well over 25 million times.

The misses

Image of man pontificating over Google Buzz

Image:Maximo Gomez

Google Knols

Google’s attempt at ‘doing a Wikipedia’ is a venture to forget. Knol pages were "meant to be the first thing someone who searches for a topic for the first time will want to read", according to a bombastic statement from Udi Manber, Google’s vice president of engineering on launch in 2008. Well, they weren’t, and the Knols poject was quietly shut down just four years later.

Orkut/Google Buzz

Google’s first attempt at a social network platform launched in 2004 and caught the imagination of very few people, in the grand scheme of things. Well, aside from in Brazil, where Orkut is still mystifyingly massive to this day.

Google Buzz (alas, not an audacious attempt at going to-to-toe with Ann Summers, but another stab at social networking) was sneakily introduced into Gmail users' accounts in 2010, causing a massive privacy fuore. It never recovered, and was unceremoniously put out of its misery less than two years later.

The maybes

Image of man wearing Google Glass

Image:The Demo Conference

Google+

A good acid test of a social media platform’s influence is how many tabloid storms it causes. Twitter and Facebook (and, in its day, Myspace) have all been implicated in innumerable moral panics. So, until Google+ gets blamed for a teenager wrecking their parents’ home when they’re on holiday, the jury is still out.

That said, Google+ ‘hangouts’ are starting to become more commonplace, as big brands, publishers and broadcasters use them for engagement.

Google Glass

We’ve discussed the merits or otherwise of ‘wearable tech’ before. The capabilities of the face-worn device really are mind-boggling, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it makes the wearer look like, well, a bit of a div.

In fact, ‘early adopters’ of Glass have been imaginatively dubbed ‘Glassholes’, and there have even been reports of tech-motivated ‘hate crimes’ against users.

Would you go for a spin in a driverless car, or does the concept terrify you? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook