Self-driving cars — or plans for them — seem to be everywhere

There’s been plenty of talk about self-driving cars. Google is testing them in California and elsewhere, as many people know. Now, it seems more and more are aboard the train to autonomous vehicles.

Automakers at the Frankfurt auto show last week were on board. Mercedes-Benz unveiled a model that accelerates and brakes on its own, although it still need a human hand to guide the steering. Other carmakers working on self-driving cars mentioned in recent articles by the New York Times and Los Angeles Times include Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota and Volvo. And as Dana Hull writes for SiliconBeat, a job listing by Tesla Motors shows it’s working on an autonomous electric vehicle.

Many drivers (the human ones who’d be able to read or check Twitter or write emails in their cars) also appear to be aboard, according to a recent poll. Widespread adoption is only a matter of when, not if. A few companies have announced different timetables, with Google’s Sergey Brin predicting 2017, and Nissan and Mercedes saying 2020.

Brad Templeton of Singularity University, who also advises Google on its work on self-driving cars, says it won’t happen all at once, anyway. “They’re just trying to make a prediction that they can reach safety goals before then,” he said in a phone interview Monday.

Templeton will be at the Creative Convergence Silicon Valley (C2SV) tech and music conference next week. He gave us a preview of his talk about autonomous vehicles, which he calls “one of the biggest changes in software” in recent years.

“I mean, the Internet was pretty big,” he said. “I would compare it to the Internet, although it’s a different focus.”

How dramatic might the changes be?

A commonly cited advantage is that autonomous vehicles are supposed to be safer and make fewer mistakes than human drivers.

“The cars are never going to get drunk,” Templeton said. “They don’t drink too much.”

Also, Google CEO Larry page has said self-driving cars could drop us off at work, then go park themselves. That’s obviously a time-saver, especially for those who work in big cities where parking can be a headache. Take that idea further and assume that the cars could then go do something else, and we would need fewer parking spaces.

“It’s going to change our cities and urban planning a lot,” Templeton said.

Self-driving cars could also boost the sharing economy. There could be a “big upheaval in car-owning, from an ownership model to a service model,” Templeton said.

That new model could involve using different cars that suit our purpose at different times. Want to go skiing? Rent — not buy — an SUV to take you to the snow. Driving in the city? Rent a compact.

Other big changes could have a big economic and human impact. Self-driving taxis would eliminate the need for cab drivers. Templeton will also talk at C2SV about other issues, including privacy — who would hang on to the data the vehicles would collect, who would it be shared with and how long will that information be retained? He will also talk about the efforts to write laws surrounding the cars, what these vehicles could do for retail and delivery of goods, and more.

Templeton, who is also a director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is scheduled to speak Thursday, Sept. 26 from 3:30 to 4:20 p.m. at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.


Photo:  A bicyclist rides by a Google self-driving car at Google headquarters in 2012. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


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  • Gary Kreie

    I’m not sure it will be that much fun to drive behind a self-driving car that just dropped off the human driver and is now looking for a parking space. It may drive very cautiously. If I see a parking space in the other aisle, I’m having my wife jump out and run over there and stand in it until the self-driving car stops. Then I’ll drive around and take the parking space. After all, you can’t be rude to a machine, can you?