Tuesday 20 February 2018

Look, no driver! Google's car of the future is here

Google's new vehicle is set to revolutionise car travel, writes Paul Melia

Wheels of
fortune: (L-R)
Chairman Eric
Schmidt; CEO
Larry Page;
and cofounder
Sergey Brin in
Google's new
Wheels of fortune: (L-R) Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt; CEO Larry Page; and cofounder Sergey Brin in Google's new self-driving car.

It's late and you're tired. You've to drive to the shops, then pick up the kids before battling rush-hour traffic to get home. No problem! Simply get into your driverless car, input your destination and sit back and enjoy the ride.

This isn't a vision of the far-future. It could become a reality before the end of the decade.

Internet giant Google is piloting a driverless car, where the owner simply relaxes while sensors and high-powered computers help navigate traffic and get you to your destination safely.

The concept isn't new, and was first revealed at the 1933 World Fair in New York. Since then, driverless vehicles have been developed for airports where passengers are transported from terminal to terminal and in public transport systems as exist in cities such as Copenhagen.

But what's different about Google's efforts is that the company plans a vehicle that will navigate city streets, avoiding pedestrians and other road-users while having the ability to stop at traffic lights and cope with real-life situations.

Cameras are mounted on the roof and radar sensors, a position estimator and laser-finder detect other traffic and help get the converted Toyota Prius to its final destination safely.

Google's self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles to date, and are currently involved in intensive road-testing in the US. One state -- Nevada -- has passed laws allowing the use of so-called 'autonomous vehicles' on public roads from as early as next year.

"Every car has two people inside, a specially trained safety driver who monitors road conditions and traffic and a software operator who monitors the computer system," a Google spokeswoman told the Irish Independent.

"They can take over control easily at any time, similar to disengaging cruise control. Automation could make cars safer, reduce energy consumption, enable entirely new models of car sharing and free up substantial time every year."

Irish drivers could certainly use the extra time, especially those living in cities.

The Central Statistics Office says that urban drivers clock an average of 180km a week, spending 414 minutes -- almost seven hours, or a working day -- behind the wheel.

You could do a lot in that time, such as play with the kids or enjoy your copy of the Irish Independent.

And it's not only Google that's investigating the technology. General Motors and Volkswagen are both exploring the possibility of offering everyone the chance to own their own version of KITT, the self-driving automotive hero of the 1980s TV series Knight Rider, over the coming years.

Of course, this is the extreme end of technology used by the industry to help make the driving experience less stressful and safer.

Cars have never been more equipped with gadgets, gizmos and safety devices than today, where features once considered as costly additional extras like ABS, remote locking and cd players are now standard on the average car.

But with the gadgets come problems.

"Only Japanese cars had radios 30 years ago when I started in the business," president of the Society of the Irish Motor Industry (SIMI) Gerry Caffrey said.

"In a way, we might have gotten overly-technological. It takes an expert to work on a lot of cars now. Replacing a bulb is no longer a simple job. It can take an hour. When you have a situation like the last couple of days where cars are affected by floods, insurance companies don't want to repair them because there's so much technology that might go wrong down the road."

But autonomous motoring means there'll be no fun getting into the car any more, no buzz as you accelerate on a motorway or drive along a scenic route. But there's no joy sitting in rush-hour traffic. With no driver, no problem.

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