Google driverless car: George Jetson where are you?

DETROIT – Forgive me if I'm feeling as if Hanna & Barbara pulled the old bait-and-switch on me.

Since I was about 5 years old I have wanted my briefcase to fold into a car that will whisk me off to work as I read the electronic newspaper. In fact, I am still waiting for the creature comforts George Jetson and his family enjoyed in the cartoons of my youth -- a loving yet mouthy robot maid and moving sidewalks everywhere [not just at the airport].

There can be no doubt Sergey Brin and company at Google watched the same ingenious and imaginative television, too, and they have the money and the desire to make at least the autonomous car reality. They have experimented with a conventional car for the past year loaded up with sensors and computers trying to make the morning commute, which is particularly heinous in California, a far more pleasurable experience. They are trying to take actual driving out of the equation. They would have you sit and watch out the window while your cellphone app does the work. Your only in-cabin control is a red panic button.

They are going to build roughly a dozen electric prototypes for the next bit of testing they intend to do. They have reached out to Detroit and are having Roush Industries and a couple of Detroit-area based suppliers to build their new dream cars because no one knows automotive engineering better than Motown.

But sadly, even this watered down version of the Jetson's car is a long way off. You see, the car companies have been working on this concept for more than a decade. I remember Chrysler, even before the Germans took it over, had a drive-by-wire program that never panned out, mainly because it was supremely expensive and not especially workable at a time when the company was cash starved and eventually went bankrupt. Today, Chrysler may be working on the idea, but not spending a lot of time or money against it because becoming a global automaker is the job at hand.

General Motors won a 2008 Defense Department race called the DARPA Challenge where the big car companies competed to have a vehicle drive without anyone inside it for 60 miles on an urban-type track. It required massive sensing and computer equipment that looked on cars much like the first version of the IBM computers did back in the early 60s that filled entire rooms. GM has since been able to reduce the size of the equipment and have what's called the Super Cruise technology today.

Ford has a new Fusion car it unveiled last fall in Dearborn that does much the same thing. Mercedes Benz has a car that can drive 100 miles per hour on the Autobahn which allows the driver to take his or her hands off the wheel. The only problem is, while it detects vehicles moving around in front of the car, it will give you about 10 seconds of hands-free driving if there is much going on up there, which kind of defeats the purpose of hands-free driving.

Now this is all wonderful, whiz bang technology. There is little doubt given time this can become a workable option in cars. But Drew Winter of Ward's Autoworld, a highly respected veteran auto writer and analyst, says all of this is still a dream in that there are many problems needing quick solutions in addition to the technological advances needed.

First and foremost he says Google's whiz kids look at transportation entirely differently than we do here in Motown.

"So when Google talks about bringing out an autonomous car in 2020 it may not be what Detroit considers a car."

He believes there are too many governmental issues regarding required automotive equipment [Google's bubble will have a rearview mirror because California requires it, not because the passengers need it] American cars are required to be crash tested, crash protected and perhaps most importantly, in the GM ignition switch recall era, lawsuit proof. This is the messy end of the idea Google is not likely to embrace.

Winter said "ultimately Google, I don't think, is ever going to get into the car business because that's not what they do."

They will likely look to Detroit as a partner to do the heavy lifting while Google does the lofty dreaming. If they work together there is a chance in, say the generation or so, of having George Jetson's automated car. But the odds are long on that indeed. So all I can say about this terrible bait and switch is George Jetson had all the fun. He was allowed to have a lot of the wonderful toys that are not likely to be part of my life in the immediate future.

And for this all I have to say is ... "Jetson, you're fired!"

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