Driverless Cars: Sci-Fi or Imminent Reality?

22 Nov

The Google Car

The New York Times ran a story this month about Google X, a “top-secret” lab in the San Francisco Bay Area where Google’s crafting its version of the technological future.  Among the experiments is the Google driverless car, one of which was let loose on California roads last year. Whether because I relish the act of driving, or hesitate to give up ultimate vehicular control to a computer (knowing how often my laptop freezes), I’m not sure but, the driverless car concept doesn’t sit well with me. Surely, the idea’s a sky-high pipe-dream that will go the way of boil-in-the-bag dinners and MySpace. Right?

But my research proves humbling. Who knew the autonomous car concept dates back to 1939? That’s when the “Futurama” exhibit at the New York World’s Fair promised to introduce visitors to “the world of tomorrow”, aka. 1960. Designer Norman bel Geddes created a miniature landscape complete with farm land, urban spaces, and a roadway system to neatly tie them together. Ultimately, the exhibit, which was sponsored by General Motors, was promoting a tax-payer funded, interstate freeway. But Geddes was already thinking ahead to the traffic problems that could arise in such a future so his vision included not only vehicle ownership, but specifically ownership of radio-controlled, electric vehicles.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Not only has the driverless car concept failed to fade, it’s being implemented in both the public and private sectors! Take the Netherlands, for example, where the city of Rotterdam successfully runs a public transportation fleet of six automated people movers. And just this month, Reuter’s reported mining company Rio Tinto ordered 150 driverless trucks to aid in hauling ore mined in Australia. The future is already here!

None of which makes me feel any better… the autonomous car concept still strikes me as unnatural. But then, so did CDs and smartphones and… now I’m proficient at both. Google’s already revolutionized the way we search for information. Why not let it take that forward-thinking show on the road?