Is There A Driverless Car In Your Future?

Earlier this week, Google debuted a fully functional driverless car — one built without a steering wheel or brake pedals. NPR's Arun Rath talks with Brad Templeton, who's advised Google on its car program, about what a future without drivers might look like.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Finally, on Tuesday, Google pulled back the curtain.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There is no steering wheel in the way.

RATH: The Google video is like and Ipad ad. The gentle music, the real people - who quickly get over the weirdness of the car with no steering wheel or brake pedal and are soon giggling as they enjoy their ride. Brad Templeton has written extensively about self-driving cars and has advised Google on their program. I asked him how long before we're seeing these things out on the road?

BRAD TEMPLETON: Well, Google has said they're going to be letting people, non-Google employees, into it fairly soon - within a year. Now actually making it for sale or available for rent is far more likely as something that will come a little bit later. But the car companies have been saying they'll be selling offerings by 2020 themselves. And Google originally said 2017, Elon Musk said that Tesla would sell the car by 2016. Volvo has said they will have people in cars around that time, too. So it is definitely going to be on the road in the later part of this decade and really taking over the world the 2020s.

RATH: What do you think are the biggest hurdles that remain between now and then in terms of getting the car out there in numbers?

TEMPLETON: Well, the answer to your first question actually is the hurdle because there isn't a fixed date. What there is, is a goal of making a vehicle that drives more safely than people do. Now that's both easy because people drive very badly, but also very hard at the same time. And everyone involved is really just focused on making it possible to prove that they've making a vehicle that safe. And then they'll sell them as soon as they believe they can do that. Google has a big lead in that area. They've announced that they've done at least 700,000 miles of testing of their vehicles in the roads around California. Other companies aren't nearly as far long, but they're all working on it.

RATH: So, you've been thinking about this for a while. And I know that once the driverless car is on the road for you, that's just the start. How will this affect the design of the car?

TEMPLETON: Well, what Google has done is particularly interesting there because their cars don't have a steering whee, and they're cars that can operate unmanned, which means they can actually deliver themselves to you. This is a car which can go often recharge or refuel itself. And this is a car which can go and park and store itself. And those things have big consequences for the energy we use in transportation and for our cities.

Many people don't realize just how much of our lives and our cities we've given over to the car. A quarter of the energy in the United States goes to personal transportation, a quarter of the greenhouse gases. So it's really such a huge part of our lives, even when you forget about the biggest thing of all, which is the 33,000 Americans who die in car accidents every year and the millions more who are injured.

RATH: Do you see any downside here? I would at least think that there's going to be job loss from people who drive for a living.

TEMPLETON: That's certainly true. And unlike people who build an industrial robot, who build it for the purpose of replacing a worker, nobody is building this for the purpose of replacing the worker. It's going to happen. But it's not the goal of the people working on it. Now there are other downsides possible to. There are people who might take this instead of going green with it, they might decide they want to live three hours away from the city and sleep on their commute every day. We could get more sprawl instead of less. We could get people who don't walk anywhere anymore, and so they don't get fitness. We could get governments demanding that they have control of the vehicles and they can take them over and tell your car to take you to jail like happens in the movie "Minority Report" with Tom Cruise. We could see privacy invaded. The NSA is already watching everything we do. Soon they'll be able watch everywhere he go.

Nothing is perfect. Nothing is without its downsides. But boy, as you may have mentioned 1.2 million people around the world killed every year in car accidents. That's like curing one of the world most dangerous diseases. And it's worth the risk of those downsides to try and do that.

RATH: That's Brad Templeton. You can read more of his thoughts on driverless cars at his website, templetons.com. Brad, thanks very much.

TEMPLETON: Thanks very much, too. And I hope to see you in a self-driven car soon.

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