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The Inevitable Age of the Self-Driving Car

“Everything in life is somewhere else,” E.B. White once said, “and we get there in a car.” But we don’t get there very efficiently; human error accounts for more than 90% of traffic accidents, and the average person spends 4.3 years of their life driving. So in a way, the whole idea of cars that we drive—as opposed to cars that simply take us from one place to another—asks us to sacrifice a huge chunk of our life, and take considerable risks with the rest of it, just to get from point A to point B. Bicycling, walkable cities, and public transportation can mitigate both problems, but not eliminate them entirely (except in a few infrastructure-rich big cities). What would be ideal is if we lived in a world where cars just drove themselves.

I’m a little skeptical that the Google Car is going to give us that world within the near future, but it just might. Four U.S. states—California, Florida, Michigan, and Nevada—have already legalized self-driving cars, and the rest will no doubt follow if they turn out to be safe and affordable. 

And judging by Google’s post from last week, the company is comfortable enough with the concept to get this show on the road:

Today we’re unwrapping the best holiday gift we could’ve imagined: the first real build of our self-driving vehicle prototype.

The vehicle we unveiled in May (goo.gl/qDUtgq) was an early mockup—it didn’t even have real headlights! Since then, we’ve been working on different prototypes-of-prototypes, each designed to test different systems of a self-driving car—for example, the typical “car” parts like steering and braking, as well as the “self-driving” parts like the computer and sensors. We’ve now put all those systems together in this fully functional vehicle—our first complete prototype for fully autonomous driving.

We’re going to be spending the holidays zipping around our test track, and we hope to see you on the streets of Northern California in the new year. Our safety drivers will continue to oversee the vehicle for a while longer, using temporary manual controls as needed while we continue to test and learn. 

Whether the first mass-produced self-driving car comes from Google or another company, it’s a logical idea that—much like the electric car—will no doubt encounter resistance from the established automotive industry. Google is well-positioned to overcome that resistance, but they’re wise to take a cautious, deliberate approach and make sure their vehicles are thoroughly road-tested before they’re made available to consumers.

Are you ready for a self-driving car? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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