The true marker of success for a product isn’t novelty; it’s blasé acceptance. Fads come and go–it’s when a thing would be more remarkable for its absence that it’s really become a hit. Not many people talk about electrical lighting in hushed tones of awe anymore, or express wonder concerning the telephone. While there may be competing versions, the concept in general no longer has to make a case for itself.
Cars have become this way as well. There are countless varieties and many are even exploring whole new energy types, but the idea of climbing into one and driving it about has become pretty typical. So, while hearing the following may have irked Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s self-driving car project, it may be a good sign that a passenger in one of his four-wheeled automatons flippantly assessed the trip with, “That’s it?”
Maintaining an ever-updating online map that judges changes in traffic, offers on-the-ground imagery, and creates customized routes is quite difficult. Building a car that combines many of those principles with the ability to understand and react to its surroundings is even more so. Ergo, building a car that makes the riding experience so similar to decades of traditional motoring that the rider sees no comment-worthy difference is a huge tacit endorsement. Which is good, since the hands-free vehicles will be rolling out onto Californian roads in the summer of 2015. They’ll be starting out with a supervisory human on board and a speed cap of 25 mph to keep early trips rather leisurely. While these reassurances may assist in creating a good first impression, it’ll take much more than phasing out the safety driver and speed limit to advance the project: self-driving cars rely on an especially robust version of Google Maps. Short of eventually developing a car that can fully interpret its surroundings independently, this will mean that wider rollouts of the automobile will be limited by what areas Google chooses to painstakingly digitize in advance.