In case you haven’t seen it, take a look at the video below. It shows a man who is almost entirely blind “driving” around town running errands in one of Google’s new smart cars. The technology behind this device has been developed over the last few years at Google’s Mountain View headquarters. At first this was one of the most secret projects that Google had ever embarked on. But now Google is showing the world this technology, and its hard not to get excited.
It’s not something people talk about very often but our cars are killing us, literally. In 2011 there were 11,101 murders committed with guns. Obviously we won’t be discussing anything related to the current controversy surrounding gun control in this context, but we can all agree that eleven thousand people dead is far too many. On the other hand, car accidents killed 33,808 people in 2009 and injured more than 2.2 million. There were over 200,000 people hospitalized for injuries resulting from car accidents. When you add up the medical costs, loss of productivity, pain and loss of quality of life, legal costs and travel delays they add up to nearly $450 billion lost each year due to traffic accidents. Cars aren’t just killing us, they are massacring us every day. Not only that but our highways are clogged, delays are getting more common and more severe. We spend 4.9 billion hours waiting in traffic delays every year and we waste 1.9 billion gallons of gas. This isn’t just an economic issue, it’s an environmental issue. Lets face it, humans can be careless, absent minded, and occasionally just plain reckless when behind the wheel of two tons of metal and glass. But Google claims to have the solution.
Enter, the driverless car. That whirling device on the top of the car is taking thousands of measurements and sensor readings every second; tracking nearby cars, road signs, measuring road conditions and planning each acceleration and deceleration to keep its passengers comfortable and safe. The video above shows how this technology could dramatically improve the lives of the disabled, but that might just be the beginning for this new technology. Google claims that wide-spread use of this technology would cut the cost of traffic accidents by 90%. Not only would this drastically reduce carbon emissions, oil imports and traffic congestion; this could save tens of thousands of lives every year. Google’s latest project isn’t just a fun invention from a company with more revenue than ways to spend it. This could change the way each of us get around in a drastic way.
Most of our cars sit unused nearly 95% of the time. Imagine tapping away on your smart phone and having your car (or a car) pick you up a few minutes later. You walk out your front door, and get into the driver’s seat, but you don’t actually touch anything. You’ve already used your phone to tell the car where you are headed and of course it knows how to get there. Your ride is gentle, and stress free. Even though it is rush hour the somewhat crowded highway is moving along at the speed limit. You are checking emails, finalizing that day’s to-do list, and maybe even playing a game. Your car pulls up in front of your office and you get out. The car heads off to either park itself or to give someone else a ride. At the end of the day you do that process in reverse, all in total safety and comfort. Is this a fantasy from a science-fiction film? No, it is coming, and it might be coming sooner than you think.
Google is in the late stages of developing a technology that experts estimate is worth at least 2.2 trillion dollars per year in the US alone. I’ll let that sink in… That makes Google’s 2012 $50 billion in revenue look like pocket change. But the effect on Google’s bottom line is just the beginning. The wide-spread ripple effect could change the face of our major urban areas forever. In many major cities it is estimated that nearly a third of the land area is dedicated to parking. But if cars are in almost constant use, what would we need parking lots and garages for? Think of the reduced intake at emergency rooms and the reduced strain on our healthcare system. Not only that but cars wouldn’t need to be nearly as large or a sturdy as they are now which means manufactures could use less metal when making each car. Lighter cars plus the consistency of a computer-driven vehicle would have a massive effect on fuel consumption.
Of course the reduced strain on vehicles combined with a lack of traffic accidents would make auto-body shops obsolete almost over night. The used car market would go from hundreds of billions a year, to a niche collectors community. And the implications to the auto-insurance companies would be staggering. These changes add up to trillions of dollars that will be spent in other ways. And lets not forget what happens to companies that fail to adapt to new technologies. Blockbuster, Sears, pretty much the entirety of print media, and Kodak. Companies that were once profitable giants but have now been crushed under the heel of progress.
A revolutionary new technology is coming, we can all see its headlights in the distance. We might not know exactly what it will look like when it gets here, but we do know that when it does the world will never be the same. In the mean time, I’ll just keep driving the Google car I bought on Craigslist.