New Yorker article: Sergey Brin’s case for driverless cars

Great piece from the New Yorker this week: AUTO CORRECT: Has the self-driving car at last arrived?

Most of the coverage I’ve seen on driverless cars has been focused on the convenience factor and the safety ramifications given how super distracted drivers are today – which are important. But it’s interesting to see Sergey Brin quoted in this article talking about the cost to our infrastructure that cars have today, impact on the environment given some estimates showing 30-50% of gas wasted on people looking for parking, and how that might all change:

“As you look outside, and walk through parking lots and past multilane roads, the transportation infrastructure dominates,” Brin said. “It’s a huge tax on the land.” Most cars are used only for an hour or two a day, he said. The rest of the time, they’re parked on the street or in driveways and garages. But if cars could drive themselves, there would be no need for most people to own them. A fleet of vehicles could operate as a personalized public-transportation system, picking people up and dropping them off independently, waiting at parking lots between calls. They’d be cheaper and more efficient than taxis—by some calculations, they’d use half the fuel and a fifth the road space of ordinary cars—and far more flexible than buses or subways. Streets would clear, highways shrink, parking lots turn to parkland. “We’re not trying to fit into an existing business model,” Brin said. “We are just on such a different planet.”

It’s a great overall read and touches on the early DARPA competitions, and what massive leaps were made from year 1 to year 2 – and how those people are now at Google:

It was a triumph of the underdog, of brain over brawn. But less for Stanford than for the field as a whole. Five cars finished the hundred-and-thirty-two-mile course; more than twenty cars went farther than the winner had in 2004. In one year, they’d made more progress than darpa’s contractors had in twenty. “You had these crazy people who didn’t know how hard it was,” Thrun told me. “They said, ‘Look, I have a car, I have a computer, and I need a million bucks.’ So they were doing things in their home shops, putting something together that had never been done in robotics before, and some were insanely impressive.” A team of students from Palos Verdes High School in California, led by a seventeen-year-old named Chris Seide, built a self-driving “Doom Buggy” that, Thrun recalls, could change lanes and stop at stop signs. A Ford S.U.V. programmed by some insurance-company employees from Louisiana finished just thirty-seven minutes behind Stanley. Their lead programmer had lifted his preliminary algorithms from textbooks on video-game design.


4 thoughts on “New Yorker article: Sergey Brin’s case for driverless cars

  1. Even though most cars are used 1-2 hours per day, aren’t most of them used during the same 1-2 hours (commute to/from work). If you have enough cars to offer a personalized public transportation system during peak hours without other tradeoffs like carpooling, waiting, etc I am not sure how big the savings will be. Since transportation infrastructure isn’t elastic, you have to have enough infrastructure deployed to support max capacity all of the time.

    Rather than self-driving cars we could just let everyone work from home – problem solved 😉

    • ya, good points.

      a few thoughts:
      – self driving cars will drive faster, need less space between each other, and will cause way fewer accidents. So we should be able to shrink even existing infrastructure and still have the same number of cars on the road.
      – people might get comfortable sharing the car on a trip w/ a few others, if it’s intelligently done and doesn’t impact your ETA by much (i.e. drops the person next to you just a few blocks from where you are going). is doing some interesting stuff around this.
      – with various economic incentives such as price per mile, price of tolls, etc – I think you could get people to shift their daily commute even a tiny bit which would have a huge impact.

      But yes, distributed companies are the future !

  2. Avram Bar-Cohen says:

    There are many compelling reasons to pursue driverless cars, but other than an expansion of Zip-cars and a re-casting of taxi service, I am not convinced that many people will give up their private cars for permanent access to a fleet of driverless cars. Nevertheless, the fuel and time savings of self-parking cars, as well as the higher highway speed and tighter car spacings enabled by collision avoidance and automated controls, will yield substantial fuel savings and enable higher traffic capacity on existing highways.

    Interestingly, Brin’s comments echo the arguments made for the rail-based Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems, first proposed in the 1970’s by engineering faculty at the University of Minnesota. Some early systems were built but the PRT technology did not experience the rapid expansion they had hoped for.

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