Google's drive for innovation is extending to the road. The company has been testing automated, self-driving automobiles, and the cars, six Toyota Priuses and an Audi TT, have logged a total of 140,000 miles.
The cars have even driven down Lombard Street in San Francisco, the "crookedest street in America." Google's blog post
on the new technology:
So we have developed technology for cars that can drive themselves. Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research.
The automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” traffic, as well as detailed maps (where do you think that might come from?) to navigate. The key, however, is Google's data centers:
This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.
Wonder what might happen if somehow the cars might lose connectivity to the data centers? The Internet is hardly infallible. Well, each car is "driven" by a software engineer in the passenger seat, as well as a human being sitting in the driver's seat, ready to take over in the event of a "bug."
The cars are even smart enough to handle city traffic, right down to stop signs and traffic signals. The New York Times has more
The car then drove in city traffic through Mountain View, stopping for lights and stop signs, as well as making announcements like “approaching a crosswalk” (to warn the human at the wheel) or “turn ahead” in a pleasant female voice. This same pleasant voice would, engineers said, alert the driver if a master control system detected anything amiss with the various sensors.
Through all the testing, there's been one accident. That, however, was the result of a Prius being rear-ended at a stop light. There are, of course, two interesting questions. In the event of an accident where the automated car causes the incident, who is truly at fault for insurance purposes? The driver (or rather, passenger) of the car, or the writer of the software?
Bernard Lu, senior staff counsel for the California Department of Motor Vehicles said,
“The technology is ahead of the law in many areas. If you look at the vehicle code, there are dozens of laws pertaining to the driver of a vehicle, and they all presume to have a human being operating the vehicle.”
We presume that by the time such technology comes to the market, this problem would be ironed out. However, the other question is: what does Google stand to gain from this? While the company cite accident prevention in its blog post, we doubt this is totally altruistic. The answer that comes to mind immediately is one based on Google's main focus: the Internet.
Many are concerned over the amount of distractions that face drivers nowadays, of their own choice, of course. That includes not just text messaging, but automakers who are starting to put wi-fi hotspots into cars. One can only imagine what types of distractions might exist when this technology comes to consumers. After all, the NYT says, “Even the most optimistic predictions put the deployment of the technology more than eight years away.”