Engineering A Safer Future On The Road

The Google car knows every turn. It never gets drowsy or distracted, or wonders who has the right-of-way. Illustration by Harry Campbell.

In most of the developing world, or at least where La Paz Group operates and where more and more European and North Americans are engaged in experiential travel, road conditions and driving habits are “different.” It is our educated guess that these travelers do not consider driving time to be their favorite part of these experiences. We do not hide from this fact. On the contrary, we take our drivers’ safety training seriously.  But we are always on the lookout for new approaches.  This week’s new New Yorker magazine, hot off the press, is the annual technology-focused issue.  An article there has got us thinking and discussing:

Human beings make terrible drivers. They talk on the phone and run red lights, signal to the left and turn to the right. They drink too much beer and plow into trees or veer into traffic as they swat at their kids. They have blind spots, leg cramps, seizures, and heart attacks. They rubberneck, hotdog, and take pity on turtles, cause fender benders, pileups, and head-on collisions. They nod off at the wheel, wrestle with maps, fiddle with knobs, have marital spats, take the curve too late, take the curve too hard, spill coffee in their laps, and flip over their cars. Of the ten million accidents that Americans are in every year, nine and a half million are their own damn fault.

A case in point: The driver in the lane to my right. He’s twisted halfway around in his seat, taking a picture of the Lexus that I’m riding in with an engineer named Anthony Levandowski. Both cars are heading south on Highway 880 in Oakland, going more than seventy miles an hour, yet the man takes his time. He holds his phone up to the window with both hands until the car is framed just so. Then he snaps the picture, checks it onscreen, and taps out a lengthy text message with his thumbs. By the time he puts his hands back on the wheel and glances up at the road, half a minute has passed.

Levandowski shakes his head. He’s used to this sort of thing. His Lexus is what you might call a custom model. It’s surmounted by a spinning laser turret and knobbed with cameras, radar, antennas, and G.P.S. It looks a little like an ice-cream truck, lightly weaponized for inner-city work. Levandowski used to tell people that the car was designed to chase tornadoes or to track mosquitoes, or that he belonged to an élite team of ghost hunters. But nowadays the vehicle is clearly marked: “Self-Driving Car.”

Every week for the past year and a half, Levandowski has taken the Lexus on the same slightly surreal commute. He leaves his house in Berkeley at around eight o’clock, waves goodbye to his fiancée and their son, and drives to his office in Mountain View, forty-three miles away. The ride takes him over surface streets and freeways, old salt flats and pine-green foothills, across the gusty blue of San Francisco Bay, and down into the heart of Silicon Valley. In rush-hour traffic, it can take two hours, but Levandowski doesn’t mind. He thinks of it as research. While other drivers are gawking at him, he is observing them: recording their maneuvers in his car’s sensor logs, analyzing traffic flow, and flagging any problems for future review. The only tiresome part is when there’s roadwork or an accident ahead and the Lexus insists that he take the wheel. A chime sounds, pleasant yet insistent, then a warning appears on his dashboard screen: “In one mile, prepare to resume manual control.”

Levandowski is an engineer at Google X, the company’s semi-secret lab for experimental technology. He turned thirty-three last March but still has the spindly build and nerdy good nature of the kids in my high-school science club. He wears black frame glasses and oversized neon sneakers, has a long, loping stride—he’s six feet seven—and is given to excitable talk on fantastical themes. Cybernetic dolphins! Self-harvesting farms! Like a lot of his colleagues in Mountain View, Levandowski is equal parts idealist and voracious capitalist. He wants to fix the world and make a fortune doing it. He comes by these impulses honestly: his mother is a French diplomat, his father an American businessman. Although Levandowski spent most of his childhood in Brussels, his English has no accent aside from a certain absence of inflection—the bright, electric chatter of a processor in overdrive. “My fiancée is a dancer in her soul,” he told me. “I’m a robot.”

What separates Levandowski from the nerds I knew is this: his wacky ideas tend to come true. “I only do cool shit,” he says. As a freshman at Berkeley, he launched an intranet service out of his basement that earned him fifty thousand dollars a year. As a sophomore, he won a national robotics competition with a machine made out of Legos that could sort Monopoly money—a fair analogy for what he’s been doing for Google lately. He was one of the principal architects of Street View and the Google Maps database, but those were just warmups. “The Wright Brothers era is over,” Levandowski assured me, as the Lexus took us across the Dumbarton Bridge. “This is more like Charles Lindbergh’s plane. And we’re trying to make it as robust and reliable as a 747.”

Not everyone finds this prospect appealing. As a commercial for the Dodge Charger put it two years ago, “Hands-free driving, cars that park themselves, an unmanned car driven by a search-engine company? We’ve seen that movie. It ends with robots harvesting our bodies for energy.” Levandowski understands the sentiment. He just has more faith in robots than most of us do. “People think that we’re going to pry the steering wheel from their cold, dead hands,” he told me, but they have it exactly wrong. Someday soon, he believes, a self-driving car will save your life…

Read the whole article here.

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