Anyone driving the twists of Highway 1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles recently may have glimpsed a Toyota Prius with a curious funnel-like cylinder on the roof. Harder to notice was that the person at the wheel was not actually driving.The article does extensively discuss the possible benefits of this technological advance:
The car is a project of Google, which has been working in secret but in plain view on vehicles that can drive themselves, using artificial-intelligence software that can sense anything near the car and mimic the decisions made by a human driver.
With someone behind the wheel to take control if something goes awry and a technician in the passenger seat to monitor the navigation system, seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control. One even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, one of the steepest and curviest streets in the nation. The only accident, engineers said, was when one Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.
Robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated, the engineers argue. They speak in terms of lives saved and injuries avoided — more than 37,000 people died in car accidents in the United States in 2008. The engineers say the technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing cars to drive more safely while closer together. Because the robot cars would eventually be less likely to crash, they could be built lighter, reducing fuel consumption. But of course, to be truly safer, the cars must be far more reliable than, say, today’s personal computers, which crash on occasion and are frequently infected.The car is a project of Professor Sebastian Thrun:
The project is the brainchild of Sebastian Thrun, the 43-year-old director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, a Google engineer and the co-inventor of the Street View mapping service.Ever since the result of the second DARPA grand challenge, I have had little doubt this is coming, and that, therefore, the days of professional drivers were numbered. Obviously, the rate of uptake of this technology commercially is uncertain, but since it offers powerful costs savings, I have no doubt it will be deployed once the technology is robust enough. I don't doubt Prof Thrun's contention that this will save energy. Furthermore, there are large classes of drivers who will be glad of it: commuting to work in traffic is a big drag - why not let the car do it and read a book, make a call, or watch a movie? Professional sales people, real estate agents, etc, will be very glad of the chance to work full time while the car drives itself.
In 2005, he led a team of Stanford students and faculty members in designing the Stanley robot car, winning the second Grand Challenge of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a $2 million Pentagon prize for driving autonomously over 132 miles in the desert.
Besides the team of 15 engineers working on the current project, Google hired more than a dozen people, each with a spotless driving record, to sit in the driver’s seat, paying $15 an hour or more. Google is using six Priuses and an Audi TT in the project.
The Google researchers said the company did not yet have a clear plan to create a business from the experiments. Dr. Thrun is known as a passionate promoter of the potential to use robotic vehicles to make highways safer and lower the nation’s energy costs. It is a commitment shared by Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, according to several people familiar with the project.
Still, there is a big downside here. If we go to the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics, and get the "National Cross-Industry Estimates", we find that, out of a total of just over 130 million jobs, we have the following that are clearly professional drivers:
That probably understates the situation a bit - there are probably some agricultural laborers who mainly drive, managers and dispatchers of the drivers above, etc. Still, I'm sure this is close. Here is the same thing graphically, and expressed as a percentage of the total workforce in the same survey:
All told, we are talking about 2 1/2% of the workforce at risk because of this particular technological development.
Traditionally, the story would be that they would be taken up in other occupations after a while. However, I think that's a very difficult case to make in contemporary America. Driving is fairly unskilled work - anyone with a functioning human body can learn to do it in a fairly short time and the vast bulk of adults already know enough to drive a car, and you don't need any college courses to drive a truck. So then we recall that the employment/population ratio for uneducated American men has been plummeting since the second world war, and is now around 50%:
So demand for unskilled uneducated labor is already extremely weak, and you have to figure that throwing another 3.6 million drivers into the mix has got to hurt that ratio quite a bit more.
And that's not even to get into the increased potential for city-crippler car worms. That gets a lot easier if all of these things are connected to the Internet.