My hometown, Mountain View, Calif., has become the unofficial capital of the robotic car revolution. Each day, I seem to run into one, two, or three self-driving Google (GOOG) cars. They’re on my freeways; they’re in my neighborhood; they’re taking my shortcuts.
One time, five of the self-driving cars gathered at a gas station equidistant from my house and Google headquarters. It felt a bit like the robots had taken ownership of my watering hole. People, likely well-paid engineers, had to fill up the cars as if they were fleshy lackeys. The rest of us waited for the robots to get full and head off to wherever it is robots go.
Away from the general unease they stir up, the Google self-driving cars come with very real consequences. I’ll concede that the cars may be better at driving than humans. They follow the rules of the road perfectly and change lanes with appropriate caution. They always signal. Thing is, the cars make the drivers around them worse.
Google has started sticking big “Self-Driving Car” stickers on the back of its vehicles. This results in people at stoplights gawking at the vehicles and trying to peek in the windows to see if there is a driver or just some lump of cables directing the car. When the light turns green, off goes the Google car, while a handful of other human-steered vehicles just sit there, clogging up the road and making the rest of us irate.
The situation gets worse when people pass a Google car and take their eyes off the road while they try to analyze what exactly is next to them. The humans swerve. They drift. They’ve turned the area around my house into a game of Frogger.
This, I suppose, is a minor price to pay for progress, and there can be no question that the automotive industry has a bold new future coming. As much as Mountain View has turned into the home of the robotic car, its neighbor Palo Alto has turned into the home of the electric car, with Tesla’s (TSLA) Model S sedan now emerging as the preferred means of transport for the hip elite.
It took a while for Silicon Valley to make a real mark on automotive technology. But its presence is now surely being felt. An all-electric car that’s smart enough to pump its own gas and buy a pack of smokes can’t be that far away.