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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Driverless cars headed forward

We’ll be able to see the results of modern motor vehicle manufacturing at the Spokane International Auto Show this year.  Many advanced driver assist features will also be on exhibit there this February 13th, 14th and 15th.  These assists (lane departure warning, adaptive braking, et cetera), making steady incursion into even standard models, are key components of driverless cars, which are undergoing rapid research and development.

While current automobile manufacturers and vehicle component suppliers are developing crucial elements of autonomous driving, they are not necessarily taking the lead in the future technology.  That would be Google.

Still, however, automakers see “driverless” as a bandwagon that they will inevitably jump on at some point.  A more-than-subtle hint of that future occurred this month when Mercedes-Benz unveiled a concept car illustrating its version of luxury in 2030, a time when drivers would purportedly hand over control to a network of computers and sensors, using their onboard time for work, play or rest.

The vehicle is designed with four rotating seats facing inward in a “lounge” setting, reflecting what Mercedes-Benz developers believe customers will want from future luxury cars:  a private, comfortable retreat where they can have face-to-face conversations.  According to Daimler AG CEO Dieter Zetsche, “The car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport and will ultimately become a mobile living space.”

But Google’s vision for driverless cars is different — at least for their proposed pioneering models.  They foresee an initial application aimed at basic, point-to-point, on demand public transportation.

Google’s envisioned vehicle, a small pod-like enclosure with wheels, is proposed as a more of taxi cab than a personal vehicle.  Per Chris Urmson, the former Carnegie Mellon University researcher who leads the project, Google is thinking of first offering its self-driving cars as shuttles for Google employees or as a service for the whole city of Mountain View (the California town hosting Google headquarters).

Whether it’s in Mountain View or somewhere else, the company is intent upon its dream of offering self-driving shuttles for public use.  That goal has Google pursuing a path that is divergent from mainstream automakers, which, for the near term, are developing adaptive, autonomous features that still leave drivers in control.

Though driverless technology is heading forward, certain aspects and supporting technologies affecting its eventual success remain in question.

Customers will undoubtedly have to pay a connectivity fee for necessary vehicle telematics.  Are we willing to add another cable-like, mobile phone-like monthly fee?  Also, VTV (vehicle-to-vehicle) communications would greatly enhance autonomous vehicle viability, but perfecting the network would require cooperation from many government agencies, namely the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Transportation, and Congress.  And again, there is a cost factor at play.

While Google embraces those factors to make its autonomous cars operate successfully, mainstream manufacturers have somewhat more apprehension.  Traditional automakers are reluctant to pioneer major innovation in vehicle information systems or the center stack.  Their record shows that sometimes things that are perceived as “too new” face consumer resistance, and are subsequently rejected.  Additionally, manufacturers have all had reliability and servicing challenges with introduction of “cutting edge” technology that later showed its shortcomings.

Google has already logged over 700,000 test miles on its driverless vehicles, but won’t let the general public in them until they prove to be safer than human-driven cars.  So far, they are not.  Test vehicles have been “surprised” by piles of leaves and stray garbage cans.  Software writers still have many more “tweaks” to develop.

In one test, a car encountered a woman in a wheelchair chasing a duck while wielding a broom.  “We would not have had a woman in a wheelchair chasing a duck with a broom as a test case,” Urmson said.  “Fortunately, the vehicle did fine.”

To exemplify Google’s urgency, Urmson has set a goal of rolling out driverless technology by the time his sons, now 9 and 11, reach driving age.

Google’s persistence, coupled with an automotive industry watching and ready to “leap,” make it evident to me that some form of driverless automobiles will be made available to the general public in the foreseeable future.

Readers may contact Bill Love via email at