September 13, 2013      

“I realized that the technology was driving better than I was, which was embarrassing, but also made me proud at the same time.”
?Anthony Levandowski, Google

$200 billion to $1.9 trillion per year by 2025

RENO GAZETTE & MCKINSEY?Technology is just one-third of the equation that must be solved before Google’s self-driving car is ready for mass consumption.

McKinsey & Company reports that regulators will play a critical role. ?If regulators approve autonomous driving and the public accepts the concept, the benefits provided by improved safety, time savings, productivity increases, and lower fuel consumption and emissions could have a total economic impact of $200 billion to $1.9 trillion per year by 2025.

?Technology is not likely to be the biggest hurdle in realizing these benefits. In fact, after 20 years of work on advanced machine vision systems, artificial intelligence, and sensors, the technology to build autonomous vehicles is within reach?as a growing number of successful experimental vehicles have demonstrated.

?What is more likely to slow adoption is establishing the necessary regulatory frameworks and winning public support. In order to realize other benefits (which we have not sized), such as reduced congestion, infrastructure investments would be needed to create special lanes and install sensors to control traffic flow on major arteries.

?And there will be legal and ethical questions to address, such as who bears responsibility when an autonomous vehicle causes an accident and how to program a computer to make life-and-death decisions (such as weighing whether to swerve to avoid a pedestrian against the chance of injuring passengers).?

Another factor, according to the Reno Gazette, is cost, which remains prohibitive. The price tag for Google’s self-driving equipment on the Google demo vehicle rings up to $100,000?twice the cost of the Lexus hybrid SUV on which it’s built.

anthony lewandowski

“A lot of that has to do with the fact that this is a prototype and the equipment and sensors that we use are artisan-made, which drives up the cost,” said Anthonly Levandowski , Google?s product manager for autonomous driving.

Even $150,000 for a brand-new, driverless car seems like a deal when you consider the price of driver inattention and human error: Six million crashes, $160 billion, and the top reason of death for four- to 34-year olds. 93 percent of accidents in the U.S. are caused by human error, and most often ?simple? inattention.

We?ve all seen someone texting while behind the wheel or applying makeup while behind the wheel or maybe even turning around to wrangle a small child or unruly dog ? while the car is moving.

Regulations and infrastructure

Rounding out the equation for turning self-driving cars into a reality for the public is government, particularly as it relates to regulations and infrastructure.

This part can be just as tricky as figuring out the technology because of its chicken-and-egg nature, Levandowski said. Without enough self-driving cars on the road, there isn’t much incentive to work on infrastructure. Without infrastructure and regulations, however, momentum for self-driving cars also could stall.

That’s why Nevada’s decision to pass regulations for self-driving cars is a big deal, Levandowski said.

“In Nevada and Florida … everything is in place,” Levandowski said. “In California, they’re going to come out with rules on Jan. 1, 2015. Federally, I don’t know. It could be a long time, I think.”

The stakes for the technology’s success are high

A study by the University of California, Berkeley found that robotic technology theoretically can allow three times the number of cars on the same roads, freeing up highway budgets for other programs.

Besides allowing freed drivers to be more productive or granting disabled people more mobility, self-driving technology also can save lives.

Analysis shows that 95 percent of vehicle accidents are caused by human error, Levandowski said. Worldwide, an estimated 1.5 million people die from car collisions, which simply is unacceptable when you can engineer the problem away, he added.

“Certainly, it’s great fun to make robot cars drive around and help people get tacos,” Levandowski said. “What we really want to do, though, is improve people’s lives.”

Though the idea has been around since the 1950s, self-driving cars are still exciting for Levandowski. He’s keenly aware of how far the technology has come since he first tried to cook up a self-driving motorcycle, the “Ghostrider,” as part of a 2005 contest by the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“I drive with the car to work every day to help me understand what works and what doesn’t,” Levandowski said. “I realized that the technology was driving better than I was, which was embarrassing, but also made me proud at the same time.”

If we take Google?s self-driving car off the test tracks and away from the serious business of highway analysis, we can see the human side of Levandowski and his team?s efforts to change lives through mobility. Here?s a little bit of lifestyle change and fun for Steve Mahan.

The Steve Mahan Story

See related: Self-driving Automobiles: Robotics over Romance