Google’s self-driving cars can now handle unpredictable drivers and city streets

29 Apr 2014

Google’s self-driving cars are now capable of handling problems encountered on city streets, from double-parked trucks and unpredictable pedestrians to hidden driveways.

Google says the technology is now good enough to ensure the driverless cars it is championing can handle the problems imposed by other drivers.

The company’s driverless cars have amassed more than 700,000 miles (1,126,538 km) of driving time on city streets.

“We’ve logged thousands of miles on the streets of our hometown of Mountain View, California,” said Chris Urmson, director, Self-Driving Car Project.

“A mile of city driving is much more complex than a mile of freeway driving, with hundreds of different objects moving according to different rules of the road in a small area.

“We’ve improved our software so it can detect hundreds of distinct objects simultaneously – pedestrians, buses, a stop sign held up by a crossing guard, or a cyclist making gestures that indicate a possible turn. A self-driving vehicle can pay attention to all of these things in a way that a human physically can’t – and it never gets tired or distracted.”

No human intervention

Urmson added that what looks chaotic and random on a city street to the human eye is actually fairly predictable to a computer.

“As we’ve encountered thousands of different situations, we’ve built software models of what to expect, from the likely (a car stopping at a red light) to the unlikely (blowing through it).

“We still have lots of problems to solve, including teaching the car to drive more streets in Mountain View before we tackle another town, but thousands of situations on city streets that would have stumped us two years ago can now be navigated autonomously,” Urmson said.

“Our vehicles have now logged nearly 700,000 autonomous miles, and with every passing mile we’re growing more optimistic that we’re heading toward an achievable goal – a vehicle that operates fully without human intervention.”


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years