Google's new robot car: Crazy good or crazy crazy?

Google is testing self-driving cars, claiming that this will help prevent road fatalities. But will it only be effective if everyone is driving a self-driving car? And what kind of world would that be?

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

There is something charming about engineers who decide they will alter the world. Just because they can.

So Google's announcement that it has already been testing cars that drive themselves should be met by warm feelings in many of one's more imaginative nerve-endings.

As I grasp this vastly ambitious project, Google is intending that these cars, manned as they are by vast arrays of excellent soft- and hardware, will avoid crashes and allow for fuel savings and more cars on the road (as, deductive reasoning goes, there will be no crashes). They will also allow drivers to get drunk to skunk levels, given that no self-respecting Google car would actually let the drivers take the wheel, even when they're sober.

While several parts of me want to emit songs from the works of the finest gospel authors, there are other parts that yield a B-flat of discomfort.

I am not one of those who whines that Google shouldn't dare develop such a car because there is no obvious route to profit. This is quite clearly R&D set to the rhythm of R&B. Google is reaching for the soul within its copious brains.

One problem, though, lies in what lies within that soul.

Soon we will all be driving them. Or will they all be driving us? (Real picture, by the way. Marin County, Calif.) Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

I have the troubling impression that these robot cars will only be efficacious if everyone is driving them. After all, you could have lots of fine responsible people from Marin County, Calif., smugly pottering about in their Googlized Priuses, and still some wayward tourist in a hire car or some manic depressive in a Pontiac could ram them up the back, causing misery and injury in equal measure.

So if everyone needs to get a Googlized Prius, this would seem to feed quite handily into Google's implicit brand trait of wanting everyone to be clutched tightly to its bosom. Which is not so much communist, as just plain dull.

And I am attempting to ignore the fact that Google could, indeed, with all its fine GPS sensorship, track you along every inch of your route. It could also send you nice ads on your laptop or GPS screen, as you'll have all your attentive abilities at the company's full disposal.

The second slight niggle feels even more uncomfortable and therefore even more fundamental. For it concerns the fun part of driving. While some have conjectured that if you don't have to drive your car, you can therefore have more time to search Google for pottery or pornography, I am concerned that your Googlized Prius removes your ability to, well, drive.

Google has declared that these cars can be programmed to drive cautiously or a little more aggressively. But the whole point of driving is that it is not programmed. Sometimes, you just want to put your foot on the gas, waft past the people carrier full of sightseers or pot smokers, and, perhaps, even waft past the speed limit.

One presumes that this might be a little more difficult if your car has to be programmed. And, of course, if your car has to be a Prius.

One can, of course, admire the sheer insane audacity of wresting the steering wheel away from such characters as the Mazda SUV driver who flashed his headlights at me in the outside lane last week and offered me several mouthfuls of breakfast when I seemed to be reluctant. (There were solid white lines either side of me. And, well, did I mention he was driving a Mazda SUV?)

But surely the most important piece of engineering that one's Googlized Prius would require would be the manual override. I mean, we're not really supposed to trust our brains, our enjoyment, AND our lives to Google's software, are we? Wouldn't that be just a little too much?