10 Comments

Summary:

While the Google’s recently revealed robot car project is being looked at as an example of just how far outside of its core business Google has been reaching, the prospect of self-driving, computerized cars are compelling for their ability to make driving more sustainable. Here’s how:

stanleycar1

Looks like when Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said recently that he thought it was ridiculous that humans, not computers, drive cars, he wasn’t kidding. The Internets are abuzz this weekend with a report in The New York Times that Google has been quietly building self-driving robotic car technology, based on the work of Google engineer and Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun, who co-invented Google’s Street View mapping service.

While the project is being looked at as an example of just how far outside of its core business Google has been reaching, the prospect of self-driving, computerized cars is compelling because they could make driving more sustainable.

The more computerized a car is, the more optimized it can be for efficiency, sticking to the most direct routes, driving in the most efficient manner (avoiding lots of quick acceleration) and reducing fuel consumption. According to the Times report, self-driving cars could also mean fewer accidents, so car companies could end up building cars that require fewer materials, which would be lighter and more fuel efficient. Robotic cars could also facilitate more resource efficient car-sharing services — say, if a Zip Car you booked could just drive to you when you’re ready, instead of it sitting in a parking space.

Entrepreneurs, investors and big car companies alike have already been turning to software, networks and GPS navigation systems to make driving more efficient. For example, startup GreenRoad, which is backed by Richard Branson and Al Gore’s funds, sells driving services to public and private fleets that reduces fuel consumption and optimizes routes and driving habits based on driving data from a processor, a GPS unit and a cellular connection embedded in the vehicle. Startup the Virtual Vehicle Company has built a mobile app that captures data about how fast or slow a car is driving, along with other details about a person’s driving habits, and creates efficiency services around that driving data (see Car Data As The Next Platform for Innovation, GigaOM Pro, subscription required).

The big auto makers like Nissan are also embedding more IT and computerized services in their latest vehicles, like the recently-on-sale, all-electric LEAF. The LEAF has an AT&T connection, GPS navigation, and applications that show the driver where the nearest electric vehicle charger is and how many MPGs the car is getting at any one time. All of the hybrid and electric vehicles I’ve driven for our weekly Green Overdrive show have computerized systems that encourage and show the driver how to drive as efficiently as possible to save battery life and gas.

The idea of robotic cars that could enable more efficient sharing of cars is particularly interesting to me. Using networks, the web and software to share “stuff,”and rethink the idea of ownership will be one of the most important Internet-based cultural shifts of my generation.  Spride Share, a startup that officially launched last month, is piggy backing on City Car share’s service to expand car sharing to personal vehicles.

Remember, too, that the next generation of electric vehicles and biofuel-based cars will take years to penetrate the mainstream, and in the meantime the shift to more sustainable transportation will rely on IT and more efficient internal combustion engines.

Yes, a lot of this robot car discussion is blue sky speculation. Google’s research is still a decade away from being able to be commercialized and Google might not even find a business case to commercialize it even then. Google has been endorsing robotic driving for years — back in 2006 at CES, Larry Page gave a keynote on the back of the Stanley robot car, which was developed by Thrun and his team.

Still, while robot cars sound ridiculous at first, our vehicles have been in the process of converting into more sophisticated computers for years. GPS navigation systems are now fully mainstream, taking a lot of human interaction out of navigating the road ways. The final step is minimizing human interaction in general. And if we can optimize that for more sustainable driving, it just makes sense.

For more on vehicles and IT check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

  1. That’s exactly what Mike Montemerlo, one of the members of the Google Car Team, told me back in 2007: http://www.podtech.net/scobleshow/technology/1613/building-robotic-cars-at-stanford-university — he told me that if you knew the terrain you could save fuel by using gravity smartly.

    Share
  2. there is always a risk with software. things can go wrong.

    Share
  3. Robot cars will be a godsend for the elderly.

    And, hopefully they’ll be ready for primetime by the time I’m elderly ;)

    Share
  4. Thanks Google for making our science fiction true! Can’t wait to see more such cars on the streets!

    Share
  5. @forex, there’s already a bunch of software in your car – sometimes things go wrong with it. Hazard of the digital age.

    @Scoble, go gravity!

    Share
  6. Combine this with constantly updated traffic reports that your car receives, and I can see less traffic jams and faster commutes.

    On the other hand, I enjoy driving (except in heavy traffic), and I don’t want to totally relinquish that control to a computer. I’ll stay off the wheel in the city, but I want the wheel back on the open road.

    Share
  7. I like this car. This is the car of my dreams/

    Share
  8. Most reports on this seem to miss that one of the biggest savings will be in fewer traffic jams. We’ve all experienced traffic jams where there is no accident or other obstacle, ones that just seem to strangely appear and then disappear again. These common types of jams are created by humans driving too close to each other, so that cars can’t easily change lanes when necessary, and have to slow down to do so, which in turn causes more slowing, making it yet harder to change lanes, in a vicious circle until everyone is stopped dead. If everyone and/or robots just spaced their cars adequately, everything would flow much better, thereby saving quite a bit of fuel as well as avoiding the need to build more lanes.

    In other words, we don’t actually need robotic cars to solve the problem, we could just invest in driver education. But that’s too easy– bring on the robotic cars!

    (More interesting info on traffic at trafficwaves.org.)

    Share
  9. [...] video demo here). And last month The New York Times reported that Google has been quietly building self-driving robotic car technology, based on the work of Google engineer and Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun, who co-invented [...]

    Share
  10. [...] is driven by search and has dreams of driverless cars, fiber to the home networks and other innovations. But the company believes this year’s [...]

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post