Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) (NASDAQ: GOOGL ) recently shifted its driverless car program into high gear, declaring that 100 of its driverless, all-electric two-seater vehicles would be on public roads by this time next year. Google's test vehicle, which Google recently allowed the public to test drive, doesn't have a steering wheel, accelerator, or brakes. It simply has two physical controls -- "stop" and "go."
Google's cars depend on a combination of sensors, cameras, and GPS to operate. A spinning laser on the roof creates a 3D model of nearby objects to identify potential hazards. Front and side cameras contribute additional information to the model by scanning for road signs and traffic lights. To ensure that all the data is correctly scanned, the vehicle has a max speed of 25 mph.
The car won't work on just any road in Google Maps, however -- it requires a precise type of mapping to ensure a safe trip. Google has mapped 2,000 miles of road in this manner so far, but it still has a long ways to go -- California alone has more than 170,000 miles of public roads.
Google has stated that its first 100 cars won't be available to the public, and would instead be provided to select operators for further testing and tweaking. That batch will also retain manual controls to comply with laws in California, Nevada, Florida, and Michigan, which allow driverless vehicles on the road as long as the driver can manually override the controls.
Should professional drivers be worried?
Although it will be several more years before Google's driverless cars become a common sight across America, they have the potential to turn the job market for professional drivers upside down. There are currently 3.5 million truck drivers, 650,000 bus drivers, and 240,000 taxi drivers in the United States who might eventually be replaced by these self-driving vehicles.
Taxi drivers could be replaced first for three reasons -- Google usually maps out urban areas first, lower speeds are better suited for cities, and taxis would be the perfect platform to test out smart payment systems. Buses could be next, after Google adjusts the system for larger vehicles.
It would be harder to replace truck drivers. 18-wheelers require higher speeds, must cross multiple states (including those that don't allow driverless vehicles on the road or lack adequate network coverage), and require Google to precisely map out long stretches of country road. However, it might only be a matter of time before trucking companies consider the benefits and cost savings of using self-driving vehicles.
Would computers make better drivers than humans?
In theory, Google's driverless cars could be much better drivers than the average human. Just as autopilot systems made commercial airlines safer, driverless cars could eliminate the chance of human error.
Over the past decade, 32,000 to 43,000 Americans die every year in motor vehicle accidents. Truck, bus, and other commercial drivers in the U.S. are also involved in more than 110,000 crashes annually, resulting in over 3,000 deaths.
The top causes of car accidents include drunk driving, mobile phone use, distracted driving (eating, talking, and other activities), fatigue, and rubbernecking. All of these could be avoided by using driverless cars, but it's a matter of whether drivers will trust these vehicles enough to let go of the steering wheel and simply press "go" to reach their destinations.
Google's not alone
Google is not the only company experimenting with self-driving cars, however.
Nissan (NASDAQOTH: NSANY ) has announced plans to launch a driverless version of its top-selling electric vehicle, Leaf, by 2020. It demonstrated the technology last August during its Nissan 360 event in Irvine, Calif. Nissan's plan would be surprisingly cheap -- back in February, a team of Oxford researchers equipped the Leaf with an autonomous system for just $7,000. The self-driving system works as long as it can recognize its surroundings.
Last September, Nokia (NYSE: NOK ) and Daimler's (NASDAQOTH: DDAIF ) Mercedes-Benz also launched a collaboration to bring a self-driving car to the market by 2020. Nokia will base the system on its own mapping service, HERE Maps. According to Nokia, the new system will offer "precise road data," which includes "the number and direction of lanes, traffic signs along the route, and the exact coordinates of traffic lights."
The driverless car industry is still in its infancy, but it could eventually follow the same growth trajectory as the electric car industry. Although electric vehicles (EVs) have been around since the 1880s, they didn't gain traction until 2008, when soaring gasoline prices, improvements in battery technology, and tax credits made the technology viable for both manufacturers and consumers. Just as Nissan, Toyota, General Motors, and Tesla Motors helped take EVs mainstream, Google, Nissan, Nokia, and Daimler could eventually do the same with driverless cars.
The Foolish takeaway
Despite sounding like something out of a sci-fi film, the auto industry is taking driverless cars very seriously. Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute think tank, believes that truly autonomous vehicles will populate U.S. roads by 2028 to 2032.
If so, commercial driving jobs could decline and motor vehicle accidents could decrease. Meanwhile, manufacturers of driverless cars could become increasingly dependent on Google, which has already pre-empted potential competitors by laying out the mapping foundations for a fully automated network of autonomous vehicles.
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