Ten years ago, Google announced that it was going to work on cars that drive themselves. According to futurist Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” timeline, the company was right on cue. He predicted in the mid-1990s that computer processing power would make such a feat possible by 2010. And lo and behold, the world’s largest internet company was on the job of making it happen.
Over the following years, though, the sheer difficulty of getting a computer to drive a car became apparent. Google had tremendous problems trying to make it work – as did many other firms – and the delays soon mounted.
Eventually, the public became bored with the idea. After the initial hype between 2014 and 2016, things died down again. And we’re now living in a time of general disbelief that the concept is even possible.
And then in the last week, Waymo – Google’s self-driving spin-off – announced that it would be providing an autonomous taxi service for people living in certain areas.
The magnitude of this breakthrough is tremendous. The self-driving car outfit says that people will be able to hail taxis on their smartphones and then order journeys around a fifty-square-mile region of Phoenix, Arizona. If you’re in the area, you’ll be able to download the app, request a ride, and have it take you anywhere for a cheap fare.
Critics point out that Waymo is operating at an incredibly small scale right now and that it won’t impact the wider world. But people said the same of the first demonstration of the steam engine at the start of the nineteenth century – and look at the revolutionary changes that brought.
If Waymo’s concept works, there is nothing in principle that would stop the company from rolling the idea out across the rest of the world. If there were a drop in the large number of pedestrian accidents we see every year, it would make it almost impossible for policymakers to refuse.
A Waymo spokesperson gave more information on what users can expect from the new service. The company is currently fitting out all of its vehicles with “operators” – that is, people who can take over if the software gets into trouble. The economics of that probably won’t work in the firm’s favor. Not only does it have to pay for all the technology to make the cars work, but it must also pay for a human driver – just like other regular taxi services.
The trick, Waymo says, is to reduce the number of operators per vehicle. The idea is to have a “fleet of responders” who can be on the scene in a matter of minutes to help cars that have gotten themselves into trouble. The company hopes that events like this will be rare and that the system will improve as it collects more information. But it does reveal a fundamental problem with the technology,
Waymo says that it will expand its service throughout Arizona first and then, if it is successful, to the rest of the United States.