Google's Self-Driving Car, a True Game Changer

A true game changer

The automobile comes to represent freedom

In 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson set out (on a $50 bet, no less) across the country, leaving San Francisco in a 2 cylinder Winton car he named “The Vermont.” Against all odds and many unforeseen obstacles, creeks, mud-beds and terrible, undriveable roads, Nelson made it to New York city just over two months later. Filmmaker Ken Burns made an excellent documentary on this experience called Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip (it’s highly recommended viewing if you’re interested in how we got to where we are now). Nelson’s dog Bud was along for the ride (Nelson and his driver, Sewall Crocker, actually picked him up along the way).

Astoundingly, Nelson’s drive was just a little over a century ago. Before that, a cross-country trip was wrought with probable disease (and possible death), months on the open plains and through terrible weather, and certainly nobody’s idea of a family vacation. After the legendary drive, the concept changed fundamentally, virtually overnight, as others repeated the feat in half the time, and roadways became steadily more and more navigable, culminating in the amazing interstate highway system of the 1950s.

The rapid change brought forth a new, truly American concept: the automobile equals freedom.

One man's freedom is another man's tedium

I drive a lot. I teach Brazilian Jiu Jitsu seminars in various states across the country, help run US Grappling tournaments, and drive to my gym, Revolution BJJ, just about every day. I’ve put hundreds of thousands of miles (very nearly a million) on multiple cars over the last 25 years. The excitement I felt when driving as a teenager has long since been replaced by a feeling of dread any time I set off on a road trip, in spite of audiobooks and great tunes available to me.

Where we are today

As mentioned previously, the automobile represents the open road and even freedom itself to many people, but I’ve often languished behind the wheel during an eight hour drive, wishing I had a robot chauffeur. Enter Google’s self-driving car, which I first heard about in probably late 2009. I had a glimmer of hope for the future, and I began watching eagerly.

In 2011, the state of Nevada passed legislation allowing self-driving cars to be tested on the road. This is a clear convergence of widestream acceptance of narrow AI (very specific tasks that would have previously required a human mind). Florida followed suit the next year, and then 3 other states got on board by 2014. Over the course of several hundred thousand miles, there have been zero accidents where the driverless car was at fault, well above the national average for human drivers.

Where we're headed

So here’s what’s going to happen over the next ten years:

1. There are going to be many more states in which the driverless cars are out and about, being tested, and not just Google’s versions, but other companies as well.
2. Commercial driverless cars will enter the market between 2017 and 2020. Sales will be very modest and will rely heavily on early adopters.
3. It will start to become more and more obvious that machines are far, far more capable drivers than humans.

At this point, human drivers who favor the earlier, quintessentially American feeling of freedom that comes from driving cars (contrasted heavily with my tedium and dread) will start getting worried and raising a stink, but the tens of thousands of lives saved each year will necessitate further expansion of driverless cars into the market.

By 2029, more than half of cars will be driverless. By 2040, human driven cars will only be in use on closed courses.

Bud the dog, one of Horatio Nelson Jackson's companions

Horatio's legendary drive

Folks, these are on the road today.