“As a boy, I loved cars. When I turned 18, I lost my best friend to a car accident, like this,” Thrun said, snapping his fingers before an audience at the TED 2011 conference in Long Beach last month. “And then I decided I’d dedicate my life to saving 1 million people every year. Now, I haven’t succeeded, so this is just a progress report. But I need to tell you a little bit about self-driving cars.”
Thrun is a Stanford University robotics professor and a project leader on Google’s Driverless Car effort — a system that enables cars to drive on their own, safely, without human input. So far, Google’s driverless cars have safely logged more than 140,000 miles on California roads, including San Francisco’s crooked Lombard Street and Hollywood Boulevard packed with pedestrians.
While Thrun’s contributions to the Google project are personally motivated, the engineer believes that the technology can eradicate traffic jams and curb fuel consumption, as well as save humans now-wasted time and prevent needless deaths.
“Did you know that driving accidents are the No. 1 cause of death for young people? And do you realize that almost all of those are due to human error and not machine error and can therefore be prevented by machines?” Thrun said at TED. He added that he foresees a future in which driverless cars become the norm. “I’m really looking forward to a time when generations after us look back and say how ridiculous it was that humans were driving cars.”
Google is hardly alone in this effort. General Motors has been developing driverless cars for some time, but wasn’t expected to begin road tests until 2015. If the technology becomes fully operational, it could mark a return to a benefit of an old-fashioned method of transportation. During the 1918 flu epidemic, exhausted country doctors making house calls resisted making the switch from horse-and-carriage to Model T, simply because they needed sleep and knew Old Betsy could find the way home.