Earlier this week, Google
was granted a patent for a method of controlling a “mixed-mode autonomous vehicle”. But from here on out let’s call this “mixed-mode autonomous vehicle” what it is: a freaking robot car
Google has been developing this technology for some time. Back in the fall of 2010, the company was testing
out robot cars (with trained operators inside to intervene if something went awry) around its Mountain View campus and the surrounding areas. These robot cars logged some 140,000 miles and used a combination of video cameras, radar technology, and laser range finders to do so without crashing into other cars, people, or objects.
The patent appears to be the fruit of that labor. The abstract includes mention of a robot car that can switch between autonomous mode and manual (ie, human-driven) mode, stop at a pre-defined place called a landing strip, and receive instructions via a URL.
It’s impossible to say when we might see a robot car on the open market. This kind of thing will have tremendous hurdles to overcome before the typical consumer can buy one. Assuming Google actually nails the technology on this, there will still be endless governmental red tape over safety and practicality, negotiations with vehicle manufacturers, protest groups, and legislators that will tie things up as long as possible.
Until then, just imagining how you could sip your coffee, handle the morning’s emails, and check up on the latest headlines (or just take a nap) on your daily commute without jeopardizing anyone’s safety will have to sustain you.