AH Google Car

AH Primetime: Why Google’s Self-Driving Car Is A Success Even If It Fails

October 24, 2014 - Written By Ian Jardine


Google X is a division of Google that not many people know much about. It is housed in a building about half a mile away from Google’s corporate headquarters in California and aside from the names of some of the people who work there and a few of the projects that have been revealed to the public, most of what Google X does remains a mystery. What we do know is that it is a division of the company that was created to really push the envelope in terms of technology and the role it will play in our lives in the future. Google X refers to their projects as “moon shots”, and for obvious reasons. Their ambitions lie far beyond simply making improvements to already existing technology, they aim to do things that have not been done yet, things that may not even be impossible. It is Google X that has brought the world Google Glass, and while on paper this device seems quite intriguing, it has received its fair share of controversy and outright mockery. People question its usefulness, its legality, and whether or not people would ever actually want such a thing. Another Google X project that has its doubters is their attempt at developing a self-driving car. While this project is still in its very early stages and only a select few have been able to see the prototypes in action, it has caused a great deal of debate in the scientific world about whether or not Google can pull it off and if the attempt to create a self-driving car is a fool’s errand.

The people at Google X would not need to look far for encouragement to continue with the development of this project as many of the world’s top thinkers have openly stated that they firmly believe in the eventual existence of self-driving vehicles and that it will happen sooner rather than later. Some would even use the word “consensus” when describing the thinking of the scientific community on this topic. When you consider the amazing progress Google X has made with their prototypes it is no wonder that so many are hopeful that they will one day be able to sit back and let a computer take over during their morning commute to the office. Google’s current prototype is a small dome-shaped two seater that is without a steering wheel and is capable of reaching a top speed of 25 MPH solely through the use of a computer. But, there are so many things that this prototype can’t even come close to doing, things that are completely essential to be able to drive even the shortest of distances, which have many others in the scientific community thinking that Google is just wasting a lot of time and money.

The main argument presented by people in this camp is that there is just no way you can create a computer to think as quickly and as nimbly as the human brain when it comes to the staggering amount of variables a person can encounter at any moment when operating a vehicle. How would it react to a random traffic stop? How would it know the difference between a relatively harmless inanimate object appearing on the road in front of it and a small child or dog? Even basic navigation would be a challenge for this vehicle. Google could map every single highway, side road or driveway it wanted but with road closures and traffic re-routing happening regularly, especially in densely populated areas, a computer that is only relying on basic mapping simply could not manoeuver within these unexpected circumstances as well as a person could. The critics of the Google X self-driving car simply think that the level of computing that would be necessary for this car to be completely safe is just too far-fetched.

As of right now, it seems these critics are entirely correct. Driving requires such intensive use of all the brains capacities that it seems impossible that a computer would ever be able to achieve such a level of thinking. But, the progress that Google X has made with its prototypes is nothing to scoff at and who knows what alternatives could be developed even if the initial project is, in the end, a failure? The important thing is that Google had the nerve to begin work on the project in the first place. In terms of technological development, the journey is just as important as the destination because of the amount of insight and experience acquired when doing anything for the first time. In turn, this insight and experience will motivate those involved to keep evolving and to look far beyond where they had initially hoped to go. Maybe the idea of a self-driving car is ridiculous, but the belief that one should shoot for the moon and that anything is possible is nothing to laugh at.