Google hits the road with self-driving cars

11 Oct 2010

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Cars that drive themselves are already here with self-driving cars developed by Google already logging more than 140,000 miles. The breakthrough will help cut down the 1.2 million road deaths every year worldwide and could transform the future of transport.

In what is a first in robotics and clearly ranks as a "man on the moon" moment in terms of science and discovery, Google quietly announced this amazing feat on a blog at the weekend.

“Larry and Sergey founded Google because they wanted to help solve really big problems using technology,” said Sebastian Thrun, distinguished software engineer at Google.

“And one of the big problems we’re working on today is car safety and efficiency. Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use.”

“All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research.”

Carrying trained operators, the self-driving vehicles navigated themselves around San Francisco, out onto the Pacific Highway and skirted Lake Tahoe.

The automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to "see" other traffic, as well as detailed maps.

“This is all made possible by Google’s data centres, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.”

Mapping tomorrow

To develop this technology, Thrun said Google gathered some of the very best engineers from the DARPA Challenges, a series of autonomous vehicle races organised by the US Government. Chris Urmson was the technical team leader of the CMU team that won the 2007 Urban Challenge. Mike Montemerlo was the software lead for the Stanford team that won the 2005 Grand Challenge.

Also on the team is Anthony Levandowski, who built the world’s first autonomous motorcycle that participated in a DARPA Grand Challenge, and who also built a modified Prius that delivered pizza without a person inside. The work of these and other engineers on the team is on display in the National Museum of American History.

“Safety has been our first priority in this project. Our cars are never unmanned. We always have a trained safety driver behind the wheel who can take over as easily as one disengages cruise control. And we also have a trained software operator in the passenger seat to monitor the software.

“Any test begins by sending out a driver in a conventionally driven car to map the route and road conditions. By mapping features like lane markers and traffic signs, the software in the car becomes familiar with the environment and its characteristics in advance. And we’ve briefed local police on our work.”

As well as saving lives, if the technology is efficient enough it could also result in lower insurance costs if there is zero human involvement in driving the vehicle.

The new highway trains of tomorrow

Thrun said: “According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1.2 million lives are lost every year in road traffic accidents. We believe our technology has the potential to cut that number, perhaps by as much as half. We’re also confident that self-driving cars will transform car sharing, significantly reducing car usage, as well as help create the new ‘highway trains of tomorrow.’

“These highway trains should cut energy consumption while also increasing the number of people that can be transported on our major roads. In terms of time efficiency, the US Department of Transportation estimates that people spend on average 52 minutes each working day commuting. Imagine being able to spend that time more productively.

“We’ve always been optimistic about technology’s ability to advance society, which is why we have pushed so hard to improve the capabilities of self-driving cars beyond where they are today.

“While this project is very much in the experimental stage, it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future, thanks to advanced computer science. And that future is very exciting,” Thrun said.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com