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Summary:

Self-driving cars are imminent and will be transformational, says designer and technologist Bran Ferren.

Google driverless car
photo: Steve Jurvetson

Designer and engineer Bran Ferren says autonomous vehicles will fundamentally change how cities are built and how society interacts, and the emergence of the technology in a meaningful way on our roads is only a few short years away. Ferren — who co-founded Applied Minds and is the former president of research and development for Walt Disney Imagineering — made the comments during a talk to kick off the TED conference in Vancouver on Tuesday.

Ferren isn’t alone in his enthusiasm for self-driving cars. Tesla’s CTO and co-founder JB Straubel has made similar comments in recent months, telling an audience late last year that the tech will be transformational, inevitable and is already here today. Google famously has been working on the technology, but so have car companies like Tesla.

Bran Ferren speaking at Web 2.0, 2005

Bran Ferren speaking at Web 2.0, 2005

Ferren is bullish that autonomous cars are coming soon because much of the technology to enable a switch over to this system is already here. He said there are five things that autonomous cars need:

  1. They need to know where exactly the car is and what time it is. That can be done easily with GPS systems.
  2. They need to know the roads, the rules of the roads and where the car is going. That is already solved by modern web-based mapping technology.
  3. They need to be connected to one another and know the intentions of the other cars. Current wireless networks can do this using databases, software and wireless connections.
  4. The emergence of self-driving cars will happen in a designated area that lawyers and advocates agree will be safe enough. Ferren says this will likely be the HOV lane, and eventually move into the rest of the road.
  5. Finally, self-driving cars need to recognize people, places and objects. Most of the high performance computing that can do this is already around, but it’s not quite good enough yet. Thus, as autonomous vehicles emerge, the car will likely “wake up” the person every once in awhile to help with things like object recognition.

Google self driving car

Ferren is also optimistic about how beneficial autonomous cars will be. He says they will significantly reduce accidents and car-related deaths. They will enable much more efficient driving, lowering carbon emissions and pollution. They will boost productivity by freeing drivers from their commutes. And they will change the way society builds cities, and enables people to interact, as cars and drivers become disconnected and vehicles are used in smarter ways.

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  1. Sigh, I know they are coming, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it. I’m sure autonomous cars will do everything the true believers think they will. But, they will never give you the satisfaction of a beautifully executed heel and toe downshift. It’s time to start developing grandpa’s farm land into my own personal road course.

    1. No reason you can’t have both self driving and traditional cars. I believe both have a place.

    2. Sigh, those newfangled automobiles may be able to go all day and night in all kinds of weather, but they will never have the beautiful coat of my trusty steed. Or the sound of his trusty shoes clip-clopping along the dusty terrain. Or his main rustling in the wind….

  2. We need to ensure all this is done PRIVATELY. “They’ don’t need to know anything about ME. We also have to make sure that they will not FORCE this on people – EVER. I can imagine one day “for the safety of the children” BS that we will not be allowed to drive our own cars. We need to ensure our freedom and privacy is first!

    1. I believe you will be able to drive your car if you wish. In fact, you may be able to drive faster and more aggressively than now. You just won’t be allowed to lose control of your car and kill yourself or your passengers. And you won’t be allowed to run into other cars, objects, or people. But within those boundaries, your car could decided that 90 mph is perfectly safe and let you drive at that speed.

  3. Is it terrible to say that I am pretty excited about these “Super-Smart” cars? Yes, I have to side with technology on this one. As a terrible driver, I think it’s a great way to ensure safety and efficiency. I hope it all works out and becomes mainstream in my lifetime! It will change the world as we know it!

  4. It’s not coming to my Integra TypeS and never will. I’d gladly re-fit an older car with a state-of-the art electric motor and battery system if pullution laws forced this but as for buying a self-driving car, no way. Just imagine the result from a blue screen of death when that computer is driving you around! Not to mention the havoc that hackers could do to the system…

  5. One more thing will be needed: Realtime Transfer Payments between cars.

    When a long line of autonomous cars drive in close formation, each drafting off the one in front (like NASCAR), the lead car does all the work of moving the air. This aerodynamic drag uses more energy (gas, electricity) and thus they should be compensated by the other cars. Ideally, the cars would figure out the correct micropayment between them.

  6. another step towards an automated world

  7. Can you trust an “android” to take you where you need to go? When driving, one must always be ready for the unexpected. Present “artificial” technology is not advanced enough to cope with this reality.

    On the other hand, if you have had too much to drink at the local pub, “James” will take you home.

  8. Charlie Chapman Monday, March 24, 2014

    Will you please not make them so high price that the ones that really need them cannot afford to buy them there are millions of senior retires that need them!!
    I for one I have traveled this US all over and still drive and have dreamed of having one since I traveled from California to Alabama to Anchorage Alaska in 1946 and now in Arizona. I am 86 and expect to drive one ,I have put off 2 years now getting a new car, I am looking at the New Mazda or the Pries by Toyota,
    I am heading out from Arizona the 1st of may so get it done ,
    Uncle Charlie Chapman

  9. Self-driving cars have been around for a while now. But the concept became popular only just now. True story: http://blog.unhaggle.com/1956-self-driving-cars-first-appeared/

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