Google Asks, Why Should A Car Need A Driver?

The newest innovation from Silicon Valley doesn't run on your laptop. It's a car that drives itself. Tech giant Google is road-testing its cars and hopes they will eventually prevent traffic accidents and promote carpooling. But can self-driving cars work on a real-world highway?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Yesterday, the New York Times reported another car that drives itself, brought to you by Google. It's a heretofore secret project which Google has written about on its blog to introduce a product that's a staple of science fiction, more difficult to produce in the real world.

So how much trust do you place in technology? Do you want a car that drives itself or do you draw the line at cruise control? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Robert Scoble joins us now from KQED, our member station in San Francisco. He's a tech blogger and managing director of Building43, a website that follows the latest in technology. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. ROBERT SCOBLE (Managing director, Building43): Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: So exactly how does this car work?

Mr. SCOBLE: Well, it has a spinning thing on the top of it. I've filmed it a couple of times, actually, on the freeways here, and that spinning thing is a LIDAR. It's basically like a laser that rotates and captures, in 3D, the world around it and can look at the surface of the road and tell whether it's on a dirt road or a smooth surface. It can see whether there's trees. It can see whether there's cars next to it or in front of it or behind it.

And it makes a map of that and it does that something like five times a second. And add that into the data that comes to it from GPS. It knows where it is. It know the speed it's traveling. The wheel has a sensor on it. The rear - the left rear wheel has a sensor on it that tells it exactly how fast and how far it's going. And it can drive itself. It's a - it was technology developed at Stanford for the DARPA world challenge. And...

CONAN: Yeah, I was gonna say, DARPA runs these challenges every year to build a car that - or vehicle - that drives itself and goes across the desert. Lately, they've been doing them in downtown traffic situations.

Mr. SCOBLE: Yeah. It's a pretty crazy. When I interviewed the team member back in 2007, he explained how it would come up to an intersection and actually negotiate with the other cars to get through the intersection. The computer, basically, will start - you know, start off and decide, is the other car moving? And if it's - if the other car starts moving, it'll stop and wait for the other car to go through. If the other car doesn't move, it'll continue through the intersection. It has probably, at this point, thousands of algorithms that decide what to do when it's meeting traffic around it.

CONAN: And thereby, there's going to be a lot of questions, thousands of algorithms. The decision-making process is extremely complicated. Some people don't manage to figure it out all that well. Does the car have some weaknesses?

Mr. SCOBLE: I'm not sure about weaknesses. They said - first of all, this is a manually driven car, because there's always a person in the car who is able to take over from the computer and override it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCOBLE: In fact, when I filmed it, the guy stepped on the brakes because he didn't want to be filmed either. I didn't realize at that time when I was filming this car that it was an automatic - automatically driven car.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You just saw that scope on the top, that LIDAR...

Mr. SCOBLE: Yeah. And I thought it was one of the Google mapping cars. I just thought it was an interesting new version. You know, I haven't seen a Google mapping car that quite look like this one, and so I was interested in filming it. And it's interesting, now that we know what it actually is, it's interesting to see, you know, Google doing research right on the freeway and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Interesting, indeed. And they are interests at a number of different levels. For example, how far away does Google say this is from being introduced as a product you can buy?

Mr. SCOBLE: Well, you know, this is a pretty expensive product. You know, the system that was on top of the car probably, I would guess, costs a million dollars a car.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. SCOBLE: It's very specialized. It has a lot of...

CONAN: The Prius it's built on is expensive to begin with. But I think they'd throw it in if you bought the LIDAR.

Mr. SCOBLE: No. Actually, you know, one of the things we want to talk about was, my Prius - my 2010 Prius has radar built into that does access in cruise control. So when I drove into the station today, it actually would follow the cars in front of it. It has a radar that sees cars in front of it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCOBLE: And it has a camera even in today's car that you can buy it for around $6,000. It has a camera that looks at the lane markings and keeps you in the lane marking. It'll nudge the wheel if you start drifting and it'll warn you with an audio warning. And those are small steps along the way to what Google has.

Now, Google added that technology in with its mapping technology because it's driven a car down a lot of roads and made a 3-D map of those roads. So now, when this new Google car drives down it, it knows what it should expect to see on that road and can, you know, stay in lane and understand its world better than my car can. My car doesn't really know what's coming at.

CONAN: And we also see ads for Mercedes-Benz and they have a lot of radar systems on their cars as well.

Mr. SCOBLE: Absolutely. I interviewed the head of Ford safety who is working on these radar systems, and they're using radar in the Ford Taurus as well to warn people when they're about to hit something. And it'll flash a red light across the windshield and chime some audio tones to get your attention in case you're looking at the car stereo or playing with your phone, which you aren't supposed to do. But, you know, people get distracted when they're driving, and sometimes they head into dangerous situations, and it's nice to have the car, hey - tell you, wake up, you know? Get your eyes back on the road.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on this conversation. We're talking with Robert Scoble of writing - managing director of building43, a website on the cutting edge of technology, writing about - is it actually fair to call this the Google car?

Mr. SCOBLE: Yeah. It's a car - well, it's a Toyota Prius that has been modified by Google with the sensors, with the computer inside it. In the passenger's seat, you can see somebody sitting in front of a computer screen and they've written a lot of code to make it possible for it to move down the road and avoid hazards.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Ken(ph) on the line, Ken with us from Greenwood in Missouri.

KEN (Caller): Good afternoon, gentlemen.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

KEN: Neal, I just love your show. I listen to you every day.

CONAN: Well, thank you for that.

KEN: And partner, I got a few comments about this self-driving car. And I've been watching Lexus and BMW and Mercedes with their operations in trying to fulfill this task. But I think there's a lot of invulnerabilities in there. Because let's say your driving this car down the street, and all of the sudden a ball runs out in front you with a kid chasing it. Are cars - how quickly is the car going to be able to react to that?

Mr. SCOBLE: Far faster than you can, actually. And that's the interesting thing, is the computer can see things before you can. By the way, it can see that ball in total darkness. My car, for instance, I once came up pretty fast on car that had no rear lights at night and I could barely see the car, my radar saw it way before I did. And that will be true of situations like this.

They actually talked about one situation where they mainly overrode the computers, when a bicycle ran a red light right in front of them and they almost hit him. And they went back and looked at the computer, and they said the computer, actually, was slowing down the car even before they hit it - hit the brakes.

KEN: That's amazing.

Mr. SCOBLE: Yeah.

KEN: Another question I have is, how about deep, dense fog or humidity, you know, lots of, like a mist in the air or stuff, is there anything that will...

Mr. SCOBLE: Well...

KEN: ...interfere with the lenses or get them messed up so they don't see right or anything or...

CONAN: Shouldn't interfere with the radar, but what about the lidar?

Mr. SCOBLE: It can interfere - actually, Ford says that if you have an inch of - or an inch or to three inches thick of ice on the sensor, that it can mess up and it will start giving errors. And they actually wrote code to warn the driver, hey, this system is not going to very well right now. The driving conditions are not good for it, and it will turn itself off. My Toyota Prius actually turned itself off in a really heavy rainstorm, you know, one of the heaviest I've ever seen. And it probably wasn't safe for me to be driving in that. But it told me, hey, I just can't give you an accurate picture of the road ahead, so I'm going to turn off and let you try to drive.

CONAN: Hmm.

KEN: That sounds really interesting to me. Thank you very much, gentlemen.

CONAN: Ken, thanks...

Mr. SCOBLE: No problem.

CONAN: Thanks, Ken, for the kind words.

KEN: You bet.

Mr. SCOBLE: Yeah. Some of this technology is very similar to the autopilots on planes. See now, if you come to SFO, they can land the plane in total fog and total darkness. And...

CONAN: I just don't - I know they can do it. I don't like to watch them do it, though.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCOBLE: It's probably safer. Actually, there's - when they turn on that system, the landings are smoother than when the humans do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's go next to Jay(ph), Jay is with us from Cincinnati.

JAY (Caller): Hey, it's an honor to be on the show.

CONAN: Well, thank you.

JAY: I think that this technology is really cool. And if I had a car like that, it'd probably be neat to, like, show it off to somebody. I would think, though, that a company that came out with a car that actually drives itself would wind up being inundated with lawsuits.

Mr. SCOBLE: Yeah.

JAY: And I would think that, you know, if someone didn't have control of the car, and for some reason you did have an accident even though you have all that technology there, you know, if for some reason there should be an accident, you know, I would think the person that got hit would say, I'm going to sue this car company for this technology because it doesn't work.

Mr. SCOBLE: Yeah, that...

JAY: And that's what...

Mr. SCOBLE: ...that's one of the - that's a real problem, is who is responsible if you have a real driverless car. I mean, I can foresee, for instance, that trucking companies would put this stuff in place first because it would, you know, let them save costs on drivers, for instance. And figuring out how to drive a truck on a freeway is actually pretty easy for this kind of technology. But what does happen if this thing goes awry and a wreck happens? Who is responsible? And it's a real problem.

CONAN: Jay, there's - flip it...

JAY: (Unintelligible)...

CONAN: Jay, just a second. Flip that question around. What if there is a tractor trailer that hits - you know, has a terrible accident. Could they be sued for not having this technology if it were available?

JAY: Well, yeah. I hadn't really thought about that. You know, going back to the kid-with-the-ball-out-in-the-street idea, I thought, you know, even if my car was in control and had all this technology to stop that, if for some reason it didn't, maybe there wouldn't even be anything that I could have done about it. But I think I would sit there and have a lot of guilt over the fact that that happened and wonder the rest of my life if I could have avoided that if I had been driving the car.

CONAN: That's another good point there, Jay.

Mr. SCOBLE: In my Toyota, everything is mainly overridable. If I step on the brakes, it automatically kills any automation. It's interesting, though, I've almost been in two wrecks with my Toyota Prius, and it warns you that you're about to hit something by its tugging on the seatbelts, by chiming at you, by flashing a light on the screen in front of you. And it also pre-fires the brakes, so it makes manual overrides even much more effective because when you touch the brakes it really has full power.

With - the guy who runs Ford safety says most of the people who actually have accidents have not applied full braking pressure. And he said one of the things that they've really worked on was to make sure that the full braking system was available in one of these situations, so that you could at least scrub off some of the energy going into an accident and potentially save lives.

CONAN: Jay, thanks very much.

JAY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Robert Scoble about Google's driverless car project. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Erin's(ph) calling us from Cornelius in North Carolina.

ERIN: (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi, Erin. Go ahead.

ERIN: How you doing to today?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

ERIN: Thank you for doing this show. This is a really interesting topic. I was saying, you know, I think the idea is great. I think there's a lot of practical applications for it. But personally, as a - just a citizen driver, I don't think I would trust it. Just because as we all know from, you know, recent incidences with technologies going haywire. I think...

CONAN: Are you talking about all the recalls that we saw in the past year or so?

ERIN: Yes. And actually my parents were a victim of one of them, so it's personal for me too. I just feel like, you know, technology is both a blessing and a curse, and sometimes we might tend to rely on it a little bit too much. And I think our human sensibilities are usually a little bit safer if you're making...

Mr. SCOBLE: Yeah. This is exactly why - this going to be one of the reasons why this technology is not productized very soon. Even the guy at Ford said when they did customer research, they found that most people did not want a car to drive itself, that they wanted to have control and feel like they had - were in control. And that's why they didn't - in the Ford Taurus, the 2010 or 2011 Ford Taurus, they didn't put in automatic cruise control like my Prius has, but they put in assisted technique - technologies to help avoid accidents and help warn you when you're about to screw up.

ERIN: Now that, I think, is an awesome idea because when you consider all the people that are still, you know, breaking the law on a daily basis and being distracted drivers, at least that could help alleviate some of the issues we're having today with tragic accidents beyond...

Mr. SCOBLE: I have to - go ahead.

CONAN: About 100 people a day die in traffic accidents, Erin, so...

Mr. SCOBLE: Yeah, it's increasing.

ERIN: Excuse me.

CONAN: About a hundred people a day drive die in traffic accidents.

ERIN: Lord Almighty.

CONAN: Yeah.

ERIN: Yeah. I personally, though, I love the idea but I don't think I would - I don't think I'd bite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Erin...

ERIN: I like to be in control. I'm a woman. I'm a control freak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well...

Mr. SCOBLE: You're not the only one.

CONAN: Not the only one. And thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ERIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Could you see this, Robert Scoble, being introduced in certain closed kinds of settings in, oh, you know, big industrial parks or even, you know, amusement parks for that matter?

Mr. SCOBLE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we already have trains at airports that drive themselves. Here in San Francisco Airport, when you take the train to the rental car agency there's no driver of that train, right, it's using - now, it's on a closed track.

But I think that the trucking industry could probably use this most. You know, why is a human driving all the way across Nevada, for instance? That's a pretty straight road. There's not a lot of hazards on that road. And something like this could be used to, you know, drive a truck through that state.

CONAN: Let's see if we get one last caller in. And we'll go to Todd(ph), Todd with us from Boise.

TODD (Caller): Yeah. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a project manager. And a lot of times, driving is just a huge productivity dead zone for me. I can, you know, answer the phone, but it's difficult to answer the phone, you know, write notes down, make left turns, you know, even at - and another I was (unintelligible) my son, I'm looking forward to the day when he's old enough to drive himself to practice. And it'd almost be like you can stick him in the car and program it and have him go.

CONAN: Have you considered taking the bus, Todd?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You could do all those things and let somebody else drive.

TODD: Well, if I could afford to pay somebody else to drive me where I need to go specifically, perhaps - I mean, different places, you know, throughout the city.

CONAN: So I guess it's a loop: If you had the productivity of time available to do all that stuff, you'd be wealthy enough to hire limousine and a driver.

TODD: Perhaps.

CONAN: Maybe.

TODD: Also what - this is susceptibility of hacking or, you know, taking over. I know even with our nuclear power plants. Those supposedly closed systems, they've had issues because there's always a way in.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah, that's another thought, Todd. Thanks very much for the call. Bye.

Robert Scoble, thank you for your time.

Mr. SCOBLE: Hey, thank you. It's a fascinating topic and I think it's going to save lives. This technology, it should be included in new cars.

CONAN: Robert Scoble, managing director of building43, a website that follows technology. He joined us from KQED, our member station in San Francisco. Robert Scoble wrote about the Google car on his blog Scobleizer. And there's a link to that piece on our website at npr.org.

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