The Google cars are driving around every day continually making the universe of unknowns smaller. If they double their current miles, they'll have demonstrated that they're safer than the average driver. Without changing the infrastructure.
The Google car can tell whether the light is red or green. Emergency vehicles cause the light to change. It seems like a self-driving vehicle handle, say, a cop car running a red light as well or better than a person can. The Google cars have over 500,000 miles on public roads with no accidents. They're getting better every day.
Along those lines, when I drove by a google "self driving" car, I really wanted to go in front of it and slam on my brakes to see if it would stop in time. Am I the only one who wants some personal data acquisition?
I would certainly rather work on my laptop during my commute (1 hour each way) than worry about driving. On the other hand, I do like listening to my audio books. But the biggest snarls in traffic are often from some stupid fender bender (or worse) and if self driving cars can do nothing other than keep space between the front of the car (i.e. stop and/or speed up), this could be a good thing. Would definitely take some getting used to...
Good point indeed Olaf. I think this technology is coming at the wrong time in history when nations are broke to do any major project financing. Pot holes and bad bridges, I wish Google and the likes good luck if they expect govt to help make this mainstream.
Some of the scenarios you described in your post perfectly capture the real-word's needs for autonomous driving. I feel for your father. And yes, we all need someday a car that can get us to where we need to be.
Meanwhile, if not a complete self driving, we do understand the need for semi-autonomous driving. For safety, it's indeed a great help.
And yet, what is not so clear to me is to get a handle on when and where my judgement is required while driving vs when and where I can totally trust my car to do the job.
Self driving cars will come in the not so distant future, no doubt. We have already seen prototypes, which find a parking lot by themselves. We have adaptive cruise control, which is based on radar and we have lane departure warning and blind spot detection based on cameras and image processing already since a few years. The step towards (semi-) autonomous driving in stop and go traffic up to a certain speed is not a big one. Gradual improvements will finally bring the autonomous car, which drives at higher speeds and passes slower traffic. No need for changes in the infrastructure, all done by optics, radar and processing power. After all, who would fund such an infrastructure? Maybe Asia, but the western countries are on a decline, all of them. They don't even have the money to maintain the current infrastructure (e.g. bridges). Who needs (semi) autonomous cars? Well, we all may need them when we get older and become handicapped in one way or another. Remember that, also in the western world, many people live in rural areas without much public transportation. My father suffered from a stroke earlier this year and he had to give up driving. With his children living far away, it is difficult for him to get to the doctor, who is a mere 5 miles away. When I'm in his age, I will enter the car and tell it to bring me to the doctor. It doesn't have to be fast and driving needs not be fun, but it will eventually get me there. And regarding the fun side of driving, there are enough situations, in which driving is no fun. A six hours ride leaves enough opportunities to lay back a while for a break or to drive manually with enthusiasm. Just like on a cross-country flight in a small aircraft, where even the passionate pilot leaves flying to the autopilot.
I think we are overly simplifying the dynamics associated with our central nervous system. The human brain with its association of sensors spanning our entire body is one mechanical system that is very hard to model and control. There are just too many degrees of freedom. If we confine the control problem to a restricted, well defined or well-known domain with a small finite number of unknowns, then it becomes increasingly realistic to design a control system to work within the boundaries.
This is what most control systems are about today. They have several output variables which they attempt to keep within a control limit. This is possible with combat aircraft, submarines and many other advanced control solutions we have developed. However, in all of these cases, you still need that human factor to account for the unknown.
Self-driving cars will be operating in a uncontrolled environment with a lot of unknowns. This alone makes it a very difficult proposition. Like someone mentioned, we are barely doing a good job in maintaining our relatively primitive transportation infrastructure. How will we fare with such a highly intelligent and advanced traffic infrastructure? We are automating certain tasks in cars today but at the end of the day, we still need that human factor to cater for the unknown.
A similar argument can be applied to robots. There has been significant progress made in this field but there is still a long way to go before a robot can undertake a sample portion of the tasks we are capable of. It must also be said that some emotional or irrational human decisions could sometimes end up being the appropriate ones based on the context, something which is impossible to automate.