But it may not be long before Google will slide behind the wheel and take charge of the entire trip. Google has been working on what it calls "autonomous driving" for quite some time and its seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention, The New York Times reported.
The test cars have gone more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human intervention, the report said.
While it may sound far-fetched, the concept is actually quite far along in its development. The system uses GPS navigation and a variety of sensors mounted on top of and around the car to make allowances for traffic, pedestrians and so forth.
Although it is said to work well now in the test cars, autonomous driving won't really start to deliver maximum benefits until nearly all cars are equipped with it.
And just what are those benefits? Well, they're potentially pretty significant. They include:
Safety. 37,000 people died in traffic accidents in the U.S. in 2008 and hundreds of thousands more were seriously injured. Autonomous driving should make the roads much safer, since the computerized sensors react more quickly and more consistently than humans.
Congestion relief. If all cars were computer-controlled, they would be able to drive more closely together, thus getting more efficient use out of existing roadways. Traffic would move more smoothly, since the computerized systems would not display the unnecessary hesitations, haphazard accelerations and other eccentricities of human drivers.
Fuel economy. Cars operate more efficiently when they are driven more smoothly, without the stops and starts and pedal-pumping that characterize most human drivers' habits.
Sobriety. Software programs don't drink or do drugs, so presumably the problem of impaired drivers would be eliminated.
License and registration, pleaseThrun, who was the co-developer of the Street View mapping service, is the first to admit that Google does not yet have a business plan that provides a road map to profitability for the project. Many obstacles remain, not the least of them legal.
Currently, the law in nearly every state and country assumes that a vehicle is being driven by a human being. While Google's cars would never speed (they would, of course, have the speed limits of all known roads built into the software), there could still be accidents and other incidents.
Who would get the ticket if an autonomous car was pulled over for a broken taillight? That, and many other questions, remain to be worked out.
But for now, Thrun thinks the technical feasibility of the project is on the fast track.