TED Talk: Google’s self drive car project will be live in 5 years. ‘Before my son can drive!’

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I’m not sure it’s a great reason to completely revolutionise four-wheeled transport. But Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-drive car project, told delegates at a Ted (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference yesterday that his motivation for ensuring that the technology is standard on roads within five years is because his eldest son, who is 11, is due to take his test in four and a half years.

“My team are committed to making sure that doesn’t happen,” he said. Of course he may have been joking – partly. But it does show how quickly Google is hoping to roll out its plans for fully automated cars. It’s fair to say though that governments may have a slightly different time scale – one which isn’t governed by a Google chief’s son – especially here in the UK where there are plenty of regulatory hurdles to overcome!

For Urmson the major reason for Google acting so quickly is to prevent the number of accidents on the road (though I think we can be fairly sure that’s not Google’s only reason for implementing the technology). “Some 1.2 million people are killed on the roads around the world each year. That number is equivalent to a jet falling out of the sky every day.”

Speaking at a Ted conference in Vancouver in a session on Artificial Intelligence (AI) entitled ‘Machines that Learn’, Mr Urmson shared with the Ted audience some of the more unusual traffic situations that the fleet of Google self-drive cars had already encountered. These included a child driving a toy car in the road and a woman in an electric wheelchair chasing a duck. “There is nowhere in the handbook about how to deal with that situation,” he said. He added the car slowed down in each case and reacted appropriately.

Although some automotive firms, such as Ford and Hyndai have opted to introduce driver-assist functions in cars, Google’s own car – a prototype electric pod revealed in December – takes automation to a much higher level. It doesn’t have a steering wheel or conventional controls although for early testing extra controls have been fitted so one of Google’s test drivers can take over if there is a problem.

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Above: Google’s self driving car. Chris Urmson reckons it will be on our roads within five years 

According to Urmson, the incremental changes some car-makers are introducing are not enough, he said. “That is not to say that driver-assistance cars won’t be useful but if we are really going to make changes to our cities, get rid of parking lots, we need self-drive cars,” he said.

At the same conference, the Ted audience also heard two differing points of view on the growing debate about how AI will affect humanity. Philosopher Nick Bostrom urged those involved in building super-intelligent systems to make sure AIs “were motivated to pursue our values”.

But Oren Etzioni, chief executive of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence maintained that just because we are developing intelligent machines did not necessarily mean that they would operate autonomously. “AIs will empower us and help us tackle the real problems that face humanity,” he said.

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Chris Price

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