Driverless cars. It seems as if it’s something out of a sci-fi movie. And yet, they’re real vehicles in the hands of our favorite search engine giant, Google. Google’s secret X lab wants to bring the movies to the streets.
Google provided an update on its blog today about the driverless car project, saying that the company’s witnessed its driverless cars perform 700,000 miles of accident-free driving while remaining unscathed. This is quite a monumental achievement for a project that’s only existed a little over a year (perhaps 2 years at the most), and even more impressive when you consider that Google’s cars have traveled so many miles on California streets – with no one behind the wheel.
Not only have Google’s driverless cars weathered 700,000 miles of city streets, the autonomous vehicles have also made progress in their “commutes” to and from certain familiar destinations. For example, the driverless cars now know how to stop for pedestrians, pay attention to stop signs (whether planted or in the hands of crossing guards), buses, and even cyclists who indicate a decision to turn down a street or go through an intersection. “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 these things in a way that a human physically can’t – and it never gets tired or distracted,” said self-driving car project director Chris Urmson.
In the last year, Google’s gotten its autonomous vehicles to not only pay attention to street signs and manual road signs, but also make their way around road construction, keep track of a biker who flies in and out of traffic, and respond to pedestrians who wander in the middle of the road carelessly. Last but not least, Google’s latest technology is patient: it crosses the road only after all other cars have done so. Google’s Lexus RX450H SUV models have sensors atop the vehicle roof that allow the car to sense when someone is near – similar to how infrared (or IR) blasters work today in smartphones such as the Galaxy Note 3 or HTC One M8, responding when your hand or TV are nearby.
Although these are significant improvements in autonomous vehicles, Google’s driverless cars still have room for improvement. For one, these driverless cars must learn how to turn right on red, merge with incoming traffic, and learn to navigate dangerous driving conditions and bad weather. Google’s aware of the challenges ahead, especially when you consider that smart sensors, small yet amazing, are more attractive inside a vehicle rather than outside. Automakers want to place the smart sensors within vehicles, something that will have to become a reality before autonomous vehicles hit the streets.
Apart from driverless car capabilities stand legal issues. One pertains to state approval: only four states in the Union (Florida, Michigan, Nevada, and California) have passed laws legalizing autonomous vehicles, and the many of the remaining 46 states have little legislation endorsing or rejecting autonomous vehicles. With state laws in the mix, autonomous vehicles pose another problem: who is responsible if the driverless car collides with a human driver and his or her vehicle? Is the manufacturer responsible for vehicle defects and the accident event in such a case?
For now, however, Google’s latest tech craze is something of a dream that has Mountain View confident of the future. At a 2012 event, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said that you can figure out when driverless cars will hit the streets (or when you can read a book without turning the steering wheel) by “counting on one hand.” Early estimates of when you can expect to look across the street and see an empty car in motion place driverless cars on the road in 2017, although a more conservative estimate by Navigant Research senior analyst David Alexander (2025) has been given. Analyst firm IHS places driverless cars on the road by as early as 2035 with 11.8 million vehicles, with nearly all American on-the-road vehicles becoming driverless by 2050.
It’s clear that the Mountain View Company is betting on future devices with its driverless cars, 3D- mapping Project Tango, and modular smartphone Project Ara, etc. Project Tango looks to not only change the mapping experience both outdoors and indoors, but also provide gaming experiences such as its current Ingress game that use augmented reality to tie together gamers in different geographic locations. Google launched Project Ara with the hope of changing how consumers buy smartphones. Whereas consumers like some features of current smartphones but not others, Google looks to make every smartphone part a modular feature that can be exchanged over time.