Google’s self-guided car isn’t just about automobiles

This morning’s Observer column.

At the ceremony in Mountain View, Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, announced the company’s intention to bring autonomous vehicles to the market in five years. In a pre-emptive attack on critics, he pointed out that autonomous vehicles would be significantly safer than human-controlled ones. That seems plausible to me: 40,000 people are killed every year in road accidents in the US and many, if not most, of those are caused by human error. “This has the power to change lives,” Brin said. “Too many people are underserved by the current transport system. They are blind, or too young to drive, or too old, or intoxicated.” He also argued that manual operation of cars was inefficient: autonomous vehicles could make better use of the road and reduce the size of car parks by fitting into smaller areas than humans could get them into.

Ignore the evangelism for a moment and think about what Google has achieved. Its engineers have demonstrated that with smart software and an array of sensors, a machine can perform a task of sophistication and complexity most of us assumed would always require the capabilities of humans. And that means our assumptions about what machines can and cannot do are urgently in need of updating.

This isn’t just about cars, by the way…

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