Google's Self-Driving Cars Are Cruising the California Highways

By Jennifer Welsh | October 11, 2010 11:56 am

google-carGoogle announced this weekend that it has been driving automated cars around California’s roads, and that the vehicles have already logged about 140,000 miles. A fully automated car just finished a big trip–all the way from Google’s campus in Mountain View, California to Hollywood.

Larry and Sergey founded Google because they wanted to help solve really big problems using technology. 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. [Official Google Blog]

A Google car drives with the help of a variety of sensors–including cameras on the roof and in front, radars, and laser range finders–which build a detailed map of the car’s surroundings. This information is transmitted to the Google servers and processed to detect and react to any obstacles that get in the car’s way, mimicking the decisions a human driver would make.

In the official Google blog post about the announcement, Google said it believes automated cars could cut the number of deaths by traffic accidents by up to a half. The vehicles could also reduce car usage if more people pile into self-piloted shared cars, or what Google calls the “highway trains of tomorrow.”

Right now, the company doesn’t have a detailed plan for how to use the technology, it seems more focused on proving that it works. And while the cars’ technology is quite advanced, it will still be several years–possibly more than eight–before the cars could be commercially available. The big question looming over this computer-controlled software is safety.

And in the event of an accident, who would be liable — the person behind the wheel or the maker of the software? “The technology is ahead of the law in many areas,” said Bernard Lu, senior staff counsel for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. “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.” [The New York Times]

Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt hinted at the project in a speech at TechCrunch Disrupt, discussing the next wave of computing: teaching computers to do the things we can’t do well.

Schmidt noted that it’s ridiculous that humans and not computers drive cars. “Your car should drive itself. It just makes sense,” Schmidt said. “It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers,” Schmidt remarked. [TechCrunch]

The cars weren’t able to log all of those driving miles (1,000 of which were completely human-intervention free) without being spotted. The self-driven Priuses have been caught driving along California’s roads for over a year, but most people seemed to think they were upgraded versions of Google’s mapping cars.

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Science Not Fiction: The Car of the Future Is Looking More Gadgetmobile Than KITT
Science Not Fiction: Knight Rider: The self-driving car
Discoblog: How to Build a Car for Blind Drivers: With Vibro-Gloves and Air Puffs

Image: Flickr/karlnorling

  • Rhacodactylus

    Ok, so I apologize for the plebian question in advance, but were these tests legal? I doubt there are statutes set up to deal with self driving cars.


  • martin g

    I’m not sure about the US, but in the UK they could certainly be booked for ‘Driving without due care and attention’. Or ‘Reckless driving’.
    Google should ask themselves the simple question – ‘Do computers crash?’ And they are probably in a better postion to know the uncomfortable answer than most firms.
    Seriously, what are they on?
    But the broader point is that no legal affairs dept. at any car manufacturer is ever going to advise the board of directors that making a driverless car is advisable – unless perhaps they can persuade customers to sign an “it’s absolutely nothing to do with us – if it crashes, tough.” contract when they buy the car.

  • Bob Snyder

    Well, following the link provided in this article, they explain that Google had permission from local authorities and there was always someone behind the wheel should they have needed to manually override the car.

  • Chicken Little

    Computer reliability is boring so we will develop the toys we want without it. At least it should eliminate people having canine level territorial battles as they drive. A mediocre computer is still a better option than the average selfish, arrogant, and emotional human driver.

  • Baron von Giggles

    Hey, that’s nifty!

  • eclath

    The idea of automated cars is hardly new; just look at the DARPA Urban challenge and the European Prometheus project as examples. Computers in cars are nothing new either. The only surprise to any of us should be that implementation of newer computer based controls has stalled so much in the last decade. Even simple solutions like crash detection could help save lives when people have heart attacks, seizures, fall asleep, or are otherwise unpredictably impaired. Add in the long term goal of complete automation and your disabled or elderly neighbor will no longer be confined to their homes, or placing others at risk on the roads. Only with a long term vision and corporate backing from innovative companies like Google, Virgin Atlantic, Tesla motors, and Aptera will we actually break free from 200 year old carriage concept and realize new notions like automated cars, and the immense promise they bring to society.

  • Matt

    Just continue to manually drive, but have this technology available to alert the driver to issues around them. Like when an idiot reaches across the floor on the passenger side to get a phone the car can beep and yell at them that they are too close to another vehicle or have veered out of their lane and stuff. It would alert you during a lane change if a vehicle is in your blind spot. There is a lot of good stuff that would assist drivers to make them better.

  • Idlewilde

    In all those 140,000 miles, no one noticed a driverless car cruising around..or we would have heard of this via blog or youtube or something before now….

  • Jennifer Welsh

    Hey all,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. I think a couple of people addressed some of the questions posed, but I just want to clarify a couple things. First, there was always a person in the car, ready to take the wheel at the touch of the brake or movement of the steering wheel, which made the tests completely legal.


  • MT-LA

    At least for Google’s solution, this is the biggest issue:

    “This information is transmitted to the Google servers and processed to detect and react to any obstacles that get in the car’s way…”

    No one wants to rely on a network data connection for transportation – the data processing must be accomplished on-board.

  • Angela

    I think it’s a promising idea. I also want to second eclath (#6); my dad is blind and lives alone, and has to rely on others to go to the grocery store, doctor’s visits, etc. He can manage okay for the most part with his cane once he’s at his final location, but has the vast majority of the difficulty in getting there! It would be fabulous if he could tell the car (of if I could program it remotely) to take him to a specific location and then back home. He’d be much more independent, much happier and I’d feel better about him living alone.

    I also live in a combo college-resort town. Between the students/ parents who don’t know the town yet and the tourists who are only here for a few days at a time, most days I dodge at least one fender-bender when the person in front of me slams on the brakes when they spot the Wal-Mart sign or whatever. Having the technology that could help to direct them, or help me if I’m momentarily distracted, would be great. I try to pay attention all of the time while driving, but no person can pay 100% attention 100% of the time. A computer could.

    The main issue, as others have alluded, is that it would have to be a pretty fail-safe system. Computers do crash, and if it’s relying on a data connection rather than an internal computer system, it would also be susceptible to the dreaded dead spots. My mountain town has a LOT of places where there’s no cell or 3G service.

    Overall a great technological move forward! Thanks for sharing it, Jennifer!

  • Wesley

    It’s the future. But it’ll take a lot of refining for a computer to gauge wet or snowy conditions better than a human. They will of course, still crash sometimes. But as long as they do it less than a human would, that makes them safer. Instead of an angry or reckless human, the crash will be caused by a malfunctioning sensor.

    The future will be an interesting place if nothing else!

  • marcan21

    Solved the problem for crashes. Both on board and cloud computing. When one of them fails, driver must take control or something. Having all cars on same network could allow better traffic, no need for traffic lights stops… just go for the shortest path for everyone.

  • Random

    All those comments about “computer crashes” are making me laugh.

    Experience with personal computer, who happens to sometime crash when you’re surfing the net, is totally irrelevant. How do you think a modern plane flight? Without computers doing 90% of the job, a human pilot wouldn’t be able to manage everything. Do you think there are “blue screen of death” in an A380 or an F18? What about the space shuttle? The mars rover? Hubble? Satellites?

    Those are critical systems, which are either life-threatening, or impossible to repair if they were to fail, and are developped as such. These are not spreadsheet softwares or video games.

  • Doug Rosbury

    There is no more involving and enjoyable occupation for me than driving a car and so
    any discussion of driverless cars is of no interest to me. Don’t take away from me this
    very enjoable occupation. ———-Doug Rosbury

  • Bruce111

    I agree with the lucidly inclusive eclath and the lightly snarky Random, and suggest to the disdainful Doug Rosbury that future autonomous vehicles will likely have a manual function. I’m certain even a driving enthusiast like yourself can envision occasions when a self-driving car would be useful. Perhaps in the future when you are on a freeway with an auto-drive lane, you’ll marvel how all those unattached vehicles are zooming along at 140 mph separated by mere inches and choose the ‘autonomous’ function, just to be a part of the fun.

  • Hacker

    I think most of the “computer crash” comments are nonsense. I would trust a computer over a normal person any day. Further, not all people are normal: i.e. teenagers, drunk drivers.

    I think the larger concern is security. The moment you connect a system controlling the speed and bearing of vehicle to the internet you open a doorway to malicious individuals and groups. Because vehicles are strictly governed by governments, you open up a wide variety of privacy concerns.

  • Phil E. Drifter

    9. Jennifer Welsh: bullsh#t! They were HAVING SECKS

  • DaveH

    I don’t think it says anywhere that there were no persons aboard, just that the car itself did the driving. It would be utterly reckless to test something like this without someone to override it in case of something going wrong.

    As for the computer crashing issue, it’s a single-function computer, not a PC. It only has to do one thing, so it’s a much simpler machine, and there aren’t any other programs running at the same time. The vast bulk of computer crashes are due to unforeseen interactions between various bits of software. And, since it is a simpler device, it would be relatively inexpensive to have redundant processors, so that if one fails, the other takes over, and if both fail, a third, even more basic processor, pulls the car to the breakdown lane and stops it.

  • Rapid Roy

    I likes to drive fast. :)

  • Web Design

    I like how everyone both here in in the comments is assuming that there was nobody in the car, and that a driverless, computerized car is somehow illegal.


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