We're pretty familiar with autonomous cars around here, and we've even been treated to a ride in one of Stanford's robots at their automotive innovation lab, which they launched in partnership with Volkswagen. You might also remember Shelley, their autonomous Audi TTS, which autonomously raced to the top of Pikes Peak last year. Volkswagen's thinking behind all of this high performance autonomous car stuff is that at some point, they'll be able to program your car to be a far, far better driver than you could ever be, and it'll have the ability to pull some crazy maneuvers to save you from potential accidents.
Google, who's just down the road from Stanford, seems to understand this, and they've turned their autonomous cars up to "aggressive" in this driving demo that they gave to some lucky sods in a parking lot at the TED conference in Long Beach. It's pretty impressive:
This might seem dangerous, but arguably, this demo is likely safer than a human driving around the parking area at normal speeds, if we assume that the car's sensors are all switched on and it's not just playing back a preset path. The fact is that a car equipped with radar and LIDAR and such can take in much more information, process it much more quickly and reliably, make a correct decision about a complex situation, and then implement that decision far better than a human can. This is especially true if we consider the type of research that is being done with Shelley to teach cars how to make extreme maneuvers, safely.
So why aren't we all driving autonomous cars already? It's not a technical reason; there are several cars on the road right now with lane sensing, blind spot detection and adaptive cruise control, which could be combined to allow for autonomous highway driving. Largely, the reasons seem to be legal: there's no real framework or precedent for yielding control of a vehicle to an autonomous system, and nobody knows exactly who to blame or sue if something goes wrong. And furthermore, the first time something does go wrong, it's going to be like a baseball bat to the face of the entire robotics industry.
Anyway, enough of the depressing stuff, here's an outside view of Google's robot car squealing around that parking lot:
For what it's worth, "aggressive" is apparently one of four different driving personalities that you have the option of choosing from every time to start up one of their robot cars. Fun!