Ok, so you are driving along the road, or walking down the street, or napping in a lawn chair on a lawn somewhere and ‘putt putt putt putt’ a little car goes by. ‘So what?’ you may say, and I wouldn’t blame you a bit. But — double take — you look again, and whoa…! — there’s no one in the car! It putts-putts on by, maneuvering happily through traffic and, no, you are not hallucinating on account of that muscle relaxant medication you took for your sore back – that car is actually driving itself!
And also no, this isn’t an episode of the Twilight Zone or an article from a 1950 Popular Mechanics. The future, as they say, is now.
As reported everywhere this week, the interweb giant Google has announced that as of this summer 100 little driverless Google cars will be “introduced” into the real live streets of Mountain View, California. But I can hear you saying: ‘Isn’t Google that search engine thingy that has all those interesting and fun little “Doodles” they do with their logo when you are attempting to search for the price of a garden shed on the interweb?’
Yes, my cyberfriends, that is the very same Google. But what, you may ask, and you are certainly full of questions this week, aren’t you, what on earth is Google doing in the driverless car business of all things?
Well, you hit the proverbial nail on the noggin. Part of the answer is in your question: Google Earth. You know that totally scary program where you can put in an address of, say, an old girlfriend who you just happen to know now lives at 154 Brokeyourheart Road in Shedumpedyagooden, Switzerland, and — yikes — some black magic digital Google camera zooms in from some orbiting satellite up by the moon somewhere right into Switzerland, and then the town of Shedumpedyagooden and then right up to 154 Brokeyourheart Road where it shows a lovely picture of her house. In Switzerland. On your computer screen. Is this possible? Is this legal? Is that her in the window??
Google also has something called Google Glass, which has nothing to do with drinking anything and everything to do with looking at stuff. Google Glass is a wearable hands-free computer built into a set of eyeglasses.
You can take photos and video with your glasses and give it voice commands for sending and displaying texts and emails and maps that are floating around in your vision path, and you can fly.
Ok, so I exaggerated that last part a bit, but the point is, this other-worldly technology like Google Earth Street View, GPS navigational guidance, and Google Glass combined with other seriously sophisticated voodoo computer technology all goes into the world’s first truly public, self-driving car.
And — even more important — it looks like a little smiling egg!
The little smiling egg resembles one of those little two-seater Smart cars, only with a spinning thingamajig bolted onto the roof.
The spinning thingamajig turns out to be a laser scanner that (unfortunately) doesn’t shoot visible laser beams like a Star Wars X-Wing fighter, but apparently (supposedly) monitors the presence of objects like other cars, inanimate obstacles and humans so that the driverless car can avoid hitting said objects.
To be clear to the point of giving one the heebie jeebies, we’re not talking about a computer assisted autonomous driving experience whereby the car helps the driver navigate through the flotsam and jetsam of any normal perilous journey on our roads. The Google Car has NO steering wheel, NO brakes, and NO gas pedal. Just two seats and, one presumes, very very good seat belts and air bags.
The only control the driverless passenger has is a start button, and what
Google calls “a big red emergency stop button”. Which either makes you even more reassured and confident, or much more anxious and leery depending on your personal psychological stability profile. Don’t worry though, I believe you can still play with the buttons on the radio.
All this reminds me of my buddy John pulling unexpectedly up to my place in Parkvale a hundred years ago or so. The last time I had seen him, a few days earlier, he had been riding his 305 Super Hawk Honda motorcycle (the most coveted two-wheeler of its day) but the moment he roared up in a little blue sports car I knew his, and in fact, my own motorcycle days were officially over.
It turned out to be an Austin Healey Sprite, also known as the Bug-Eyed Sprite (or in England, the Frog-Eyed Sprite) on account of it looks like a bug instead of an egg.
However, it certainly wasn’t driverless. In fact I soon found out that driving in it was just about the most fun you can have in a car. (Hey — I’m talking about a tiny sports car with two seats — shame on you for thinking what you’re thinking!)
I’m all for technology, in fact high on my bucket list is to own a full-on electric car some day before I tip over, but I’m deeply conflicted about the little smiling egg Google Car.
Let’s not forget they are run by computers — computers invented and built by humans. Would you trust Windows Vista or a Mac iBook to take your life in its little mouse hands and drive you around in a car without a steering wheel or brakes?
“Warning! Your car has been infected by a virus and will immediately and automatically accelerate to 120 km/hr. This program will close upon impact…”
No matter; it’s inevitable. But the cute little egg driverless Google Car may be rapidly heading down that uncertain road to the future and it may be the last car I ever not drive, and it may be an outright miracle, what with the laser beams, and satellite beams and computer streams right out of the Twilight Zone, but still, for me, that best-friend Bug-Eyed Sprite out of the fresh sunrise dawning days of youth was pure magic.
And it had a steering wheel.
Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.