This month Apple became the 30th company to receive a permit to test autonomous vehicles on the mean streets of California. I can’t wait to have that ponytail guy at the Apple Store Genius Bar check my oil. Beyond a $150 permit fee, the Department of Motor Vehicles requires these businesses to report all traffic accidents involving their self-driving cars. I read all the reports, and they’re mostly minor fender-benders.
Self-driving cars exist only because of artificial intelligence and machine learning. They aren’t so much programmed; rather, their sophisticated pattern-recognition-systems identify oncoming traffic, road stripes and stop signs. Autonomous cars will eventually be safer than what we have today. A time of fewer accidents and saved lives is coming.
But these cars still have a lot to learn. Most of the posted accidents involve Google’s cars, which have clocked some two million street miles. Impressive, but it’s still only the equivalent of what 200 normal drivers put on their vehicles in a year. That’s statistically insignificant given there are more than 250 million cars and trucks on American roads. Artificial intelligence needs lots more data.
Google Photos, which uses similar machine learning for facial recognition, hosts billions, maybe even trillions, of pictures. It is wicked smart, a window into a fantastic, if not slightly creepy, future. You tag a face with a name. It then correctly finds that face in other photos—even if they’re a decade old and have 30 other people in them. If you ask Google how it works, the company will say machine learning. But no one really knows exactly.