When Will Driverless Cars Be A Part Of Our Everyday Lives?

Sep 13, 2013
Originally published on May 6, 2015 12:43 pm

Part 6 of the TED Radio Hour episode Predicting The Future.

About Sebastian Thrun's TED Talk

Researcher Sebastian Thrun helped build Google's amazing driverless car, which he says will not only revolutionize how we get around, but also save lives.

About Sebastian Thrun

Sebastian Thrun is a research professor at Stanford University, a Google Fellow, and co-founder of Udacity. His research focuses on robotics and artificial intelligence. He led the development of the robotic vehicle called Stanley which won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, and is exhibited in the Smithsonian.

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Tell me what you imagine the average commute to be like in 50 years.

SEBASTIAN THRUN: Well, you can test it out today. Just get yourself a cab driver and then read the newspaper, fall asleep, text, spend your time better. And then imagine the car driving itself without a taxi driver.

RAZ: In other words, a driverless car. And Sebastian Thrun is one of the engineers behind Google's model. Now in some ways, that future of commuting is already here, at least for Sebastian, who's got his own driverless car.

THRUN: When I take it to Lake Tahoe with my wife, I can either drive myself as a human driver or I can have the car drive me. And my wife usually begs me to let the car drive. Why? She actually feels safer. If you look at the ability of a self-driving car to stay in the lane and not to speed and keep a good distance to the car in front of you, it actually does better than me.

RAZ: We're talking about a future in which, potentially, there are no accidents.

THRUN: That would be fantastic. If we could do away with traffic accidents, that'd be wonderful. There'd be more than a million people saved every year on this planet.


THRUN: Driving accidents are the number one cause of death for young people. And do you realize that almost all of those are due to human error and not machine error and can therefore be prevented by machines? Do you realize that we could change the capacity of highways by a factor of two or three if we didn't rely on human precision on staying in a lane, but on robotic precision? They would drive a little bit closer together, a little bit narrower lanes and do away with all traffic jams on highways.

RAZ: It sounds totally amazing. So how does it work?

THRUN: Well, it works by putting basically a computer into the driver's seat, so to speak. And adding robotic eyes, mostly on the roof of the vehicle actually. And they have this nice property. They can actually measure how far things are away. There's no texting, there's no distraction, they're always awake and they always see everything.

RAZ: You could imagine a future in which - I don't know - you would go on a road trip across the country and you would strap yourself into like, a bed and fall asleep.

THRUN: Yeah.

RAZ: While the car drove through the night.

THRUN: Just like a train.

RAZ: Wow.

THRUN: We do this with trains all the time.

RAZ: Yeah.

THRUN: Absolutely. And it has the same convenience as a car because it would bring you exactly to where you want to go.

RAZ: So everybody would have their own, like, personal chauffeur.

THRUN: I think it would be great. Honestly, the average American spends about 52 minutes a day in commute traffic. And as much as I love driving my car and many people like driving their car, commuting has never been fun for me. So if I could, like, shave off these 52 minutes a day, I could be significantly more productive.


THRUN: This is 4 billion hours wasted in this country alone and is 2.4 billion gallons of gasoline wasted. Now I think there's a vision here, a new technology and I'm really looking forward to a time when generations after us look back at us and say how ridiculous it was that humans were driving cars.

RAZ: What more needs to happen now? I mean, how do you make the technology better or is it already there?

THRUN: So we have to really get to the point where the technology is much more reliable. We have one incident every 50,000 or so miles. And if you had a chauffeur that would have one incident every four years, you would probably not like your chauffeur. And the cases that really concern us are all these rare things like the deer on the highway. So there's enough of these really kind of - I call them freak situations out there that we have to fix before we can be confident. But once we get there, it's going to be really amazing.

RAZ: We could save the planet and gasoline and lives and we could maximize our time and be more efficient. And so, like - so when can I get one of these? I mean, how long?

THRUN: I hope it's going to be less than five years.

RAZ: Less than five years.

THRUN: And five years in the Internet age is the world, but five years in the automotive age is actually not very much.

RAZ: So you think that within five years people will be sitting in the passenger seat while their car drives them to work?

THRUN: And back.

RAZ: Sebastian Thrun. He's one of the engineers behind the Google driverless car. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.