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It’s time to revisit my favorite topic, the self-driving car!

Recently, Google applied for a very interesting patent that makes people think that the idea of a self-driving isn’t as far off as once thought, at least in Google’s opinion.  The patent was for a system where by local retailers could use Google’s data gathering and analytics engine to offer free taxi rides to their best customers as a way to entice them to shop, dine or otherwise patronize their business.  Google’s patent specifically calls out the taxi service as being provided by “self-driven, automated vehicles,” which makes sense because the biggest expense for a taxi service is the human driver and a taxi without a driver is pretty cheap proposition, making the idea of offering a free taxi ride easy to comprehend.

The conventional wisdom is that a true self-driving car won’t come to market until sometime in the middle of the next decade, but some people close to the top thinkers at Google say that the company is confident that self-driven vehicles will be plying the roadways by 2018, and based on the things I saw at the consumer electronics show (CES) earlier this year, I wouldn’t be surprised. All the major automobile companies had a heavy presence at the CES and all of them were touting the amount of consumer-friendly technology that is being integrated into their vehicles. There was the typical things you’d expect to find: better sound systems, new entertainment systems and more ways to connect you mobile devices to your car, but there was a significant emphasis put on safety features to help drivers avoid accidents and dinging their cars accidently when the park, features that looked suspiciously like early attempts at automating some of the drudgery of driving.

One manufacturer, for example, had an onboard computer that could optimize your driving experience to the point that it told you how fast to go and how close to get to the car in front of you on a highway to maximize fuel efficiency.  Many cars will be including displays that project on the windshield in front of the driver, a head-up display of sorts, to keep drivers from getting distracted while they drive.  BMW and Ford actually demonstrated fully autonomous concept cars that drove themselves around a track and through the streets of Las Vegas, cars they don’t expect to be offering to the public anytime soon.

I’m excited about the idea of self-driving cars because I believe it will completely revolutionize transportation in the US while improving safety and security.  To be sure, some technological hurdles remain to be solved, but I suspect the legal issues will be tougher to resolve than the technical ones.   There are already other companies jumping into the fray, promising to develop technologies that will reduce the danger of driving by putting more control of the driving experience in the metaphysical hands of the onboard computer and limiting the damage that can be done by the driver behind the wheel in the same way that flight computers on airplanes keep pilots from making potentially fatal mistakes while in flight.

For Google, of course, it’s not about building a self-driving car, it’s about exploiting that technological development to strengthen their core business:  finding new ways to advertise and get their customer to spend money on it.

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