Google, Auto Brands Clash Over Visions for Self-Driving Cars

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Google and automakers are pursuing somewhat different visions of what “self-driving cars” mean, but each side is going all-out to execute their strategy, and the end result is likely to be mostly autonomous vehicles within several years.

Each week brings new developments that seem to bring this new horizon forward but at the same time sharpen the distinctions between how the tech giant is approaching this vast new arena of commercial possibility and how the auto industry’s traditional players are.

This week, for example, Audi and Mercedes-Benz as well as Google received the first permits issued by the state of California for testing of self-driving cars on all of the Golden State’s roadways. The permits are designed to help keep California the inarguable bellwether of new automotive technology as it has been for decades in prompting improvements in fuel economy and emissions controls.[more]

Deep thinkers are imagining all sorts of new possibilities once self-driving arrives, including “the demolitoin of a large amount of public servants”—think highway-patrol cops and DMV employees—”and various cottage industries that have grown up around driving,” such as ambulance-chasing plaintiffs’ attorneys and driver’s education schools, wrote Shawn Gordon in his SmartDataCollective.com blog.

“It’s kind of scary,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “What’s going to become of us humans.”

Still, there are technological obstacles remaining that will take five or six years to work out, especially in the area of “machine vision,” or the ability for a computer to quickly recognize objects, Musk said. A crucial role will have to be assumed by governments in constructing compatible physical, legal and social infrastructure, researchers note.

While auto makers generally imagine continued human involvement in the joy of driving that they have spent decades cultivating, as Bloomberg noted, Google has been pursuing a more extreme version of self-driving in which the car really is completely autonomous, with no human involvement—except perhaps as a passenger—necessary at all.

“Clearly there’s some sort of tension there,” Richard Wallace of the Center for Automotive Research told Bloomberg.

So while Google recently unveiled plans to deploy at least 100 fully autonomous, two-seat, egg-shaped test cars with a top speed of 25 miles an hour, no steering wheel, and nothing that humans need to do, Audi’s vision is for “piloted driving” that is attempting to solve issues such as the creating of effective human-machine interface prompts that indicate when the human or vehicle is driving.

Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile, will be giving its test cars operating in California an override controlled by human test drivers. Toyota has just unveiled new technology that includes laser-detection systems that can track objects at all hours of the day, 3D informatoin displays and advanced driver support aimed at safer car control in vehicles traveling up to 70 mph. All of the many automated-driving features deployed by automakers so far have included the capability for ultimate human override.

Even in China, where Google rival Baidu is now working with BMW on the technology, their partnership is to develop a “highly automated driving” car that isn’t a driverless vehicle but rather brings some limited features that don’t require input from the driver.

Musk’s concern about what becomes of human drivers is legitimate. But it might be awhile before you’ll be unable to get behind the wheel and enjoy actually driving your vehicle.

• Connect with Dale on Twitter: @daledbuss

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