by James Carson
Readers old enough to remember the Sinclair C5 might have experienced a déjà vu moment at the news that Google is developing a driverless car. As with the C5 scepticism seemed to surround the story, with followers of the Financial Times Twitterfeed giving full vent to their doubts:
— Fabienne (@tresbienne) May 28, 2014
Looks great. But only if You’re three years old.
— Dick Darlington (@Darlington_Dick) May 28, 2014
But not everyone is so dismissive of Google’s latest idea. Matt Warman, the Daily Telegraph’s chief technology writer puts the Google car in the vanguard of a revolution which may signal the beginning of the end of car ownership.
“These aren’t driverless cars; they’re driverless taxis, perpetually in motion and powered by Google’s detailed knowledge of traffic flow, its carefully analysed sense of demand and the knowledge that even on a quiet residential street, people need to get places.”
The Observer’s John Naughton took the vision further:
“…what if urban areas were flooded with Google’s autonomous pods, each capable of being whistled up in an instant, using a smartphone which can detect the one nearest to you? It could pick you up and deliver you safely to your destination. And do so much more cheaply than any human-driven vehicle. Wouldn’t that be a more rational way of organising urban transportation?”
Add to that the growing issues of congestion, parking, air pollution and traffic accidents, along with an already declining number of car owners, and Google’s innovation starts to sound rational.
And the driverless car has implications reaching beyond the transport sector. Launching the prototype, Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, emphasised the benefits to the old and the poor:
“There are many people under-served by transportation today – the elderly, a lack of cabs and buses in some places…It’s an issue and a real challenge for them.”
For The Washington Post, this observation wasn’t a sudden outpouring of corporate compassion for senior citizens, but part of a canny marketing strategy targeting the “grey dollar”. As elsewhere in the developed world, Americans are living longer, more active lives, and, as the Post noted, a significant section of the retired population is becoming more affluent:
“They’ve got the money. Boomers hold a vast share of the country’s wealth, and, more importantly, they’re willing to spend it.”
Some commentators are naturally concerned about the safety aspects of driverless cars. Yet a fleet of Google cars has been undergoing trials on busy Californian roads, and the only time one has been involved in an accident was when a human had taken over the controls. For The Observer’s John Naughton, the insurance industry should be sitting up and paying attention to that.
“One could envisage the day when car owners would have to pay higher premiums if they wished to take the wheel themselves.”
So, what originally seemed like a here-today, gone-tomorrow technology story might have long-term implications for urban transportation, financial services and social policy.
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