A spin in the Google Self-Driving Car at TED2011

During TED2011, we listened to Sebastian Thrun from Google share his self-driving car. His motivation? “Most automotive deaths are due to human error, not machine error. A driverless car can save lives.” The car uses AI technology that enables the car to detect objects nearby and in its path, as well as control its speed, direction, and destination.

Google was letting people test-ride the cars right outside the theatre, and we knew we couldn’t pass up the chance. Walking up the stairs of the parking lot we heard the screeching of tires on concrete — and as we reached the top, watched a seafoam green Prius whip around the corner. Nobody was driving.

After some nervous questioning of the daring Googlers (lots of “I wonders…”), and watching a line of passengers safely exit the car post-ride,  we climbed into the vehicle, and away we went, watching the wheel turn itself as the car barreled around cones and corners. I would like to report that I was bumbling with excitement, smiling gleefully during the whole ride, but the reality was slightly different. My attempt at bravery gave way to unbridled, white-knuckle fear, and I won’t hide the fact that yes, there was some screaming. My two fellow passengers seemed oddly calm, though I’d like to believe their nervous smiles simply masked their fright. The Google rep in the driver’s seat had his hands folded neatly in his lap, his face calm and nearly without expression, though I’m quite positive I heard him giggling at my childish whimpers as we whipped around each corner. Next to the steering wheel, a screen flickered with an animation of the car’s path, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this car had a mind of its own.

After the roller-coaster ride, I excitedly jumped out of the car and asked when I would find one of these at my friendly neighborhood car dealer (can then sell themselves too?). Surprisingly, the self-driving cars are still about 10  years away from mass production, despite the technology being pretty spot on. I will look forward to the day when these cars are the norm; especially as an LA driver, the potential for more efficient roads as a result of minimizing lane width on freeways (because of the elimination of human error) is fabulous. Not to mention the implications these cars have for road safety.

Since my ride, I have had many conversations with friends and family about the experience. The majority of people respond with a Terminator-fueled skepticism: “Well, I just wouldn’t trust a machine with my life.” It’s an understandable concern, but to be honest, I don’t necessarily trust myself with my life! I am so much more likely to make a mistake behind the wheel than a machine programmed exactly not to. But for those of you concerned about armies of intelligent Priuses taking over mankind, not to worry. It’ll be a few years.

Here’s some great footage from SlashGear — now you too can know what it is like to brave a driver-less car! Keep your eyes peeled for them exploring the streets of Northern California.