Internet search giant Google has been working in secret but in plain view on cars that can drive themselves, using artificial-intelligence software that can sense anything near the car and mimic the decisions made by a human driver.
“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,” wrote Sebastian Thrun, a software engineer behind the project, on the company’s blog.
He continued: “Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use.”
It’s the latest development in trying to design accidents out of cars. Already many have sophisticated assisted parking systems and an array of other technology aimed at preventing collisions. However, the Google’s car, in reality a kitted out Toyota Prius, went a step further.
With someone behind the wheel to take control if something goes awry and a technician in the passenger seat to monitor the navigation system, seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control.
One even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, one of the steepest and curviest streets in the United States. The experiment was almost incident-free. The sole mishap was when the driverless car was bumped from behind by another vehicle at a traffic light.
The cars also have successfully negotiated San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge as well as other parts of the city. Although a driver was present to take control should the need arise, the car was left to drive itself with the help of video cameras mounted on the roof, radar sensors and a laser finder capable of detecting other traffic.
Robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated, the engineers argue. They speak in terms of lives saved and injuries avoided — more than 37,000 people died in car accidents in the United States in 2008.
The engineers say the technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing cars to drive more safely while closer together. Because the robot cars would eventually be less likely to crash, they could be built lighter and reducing fuel consumption.
There is even the farther-off prospect of cars that do not need anyone behind the wheel. That would allow the cars to be summoned electronically, so that people could share them. Fewer cars would then be needed, reducing the need for parking spaces, which consume valuable land.
The Google research program using artificial intelligence to revolutionize the automobile is proof that the company’s ambitions reach beyond the search engine business. The program is also a departure from the mainstream of innovation in Silicon Valley, which has veered toward social networks and Hollywood-style digital media.
During a half-hour drive beginning on Google’s campus 35 miles south of San Francisco last Wednesday, a Prius equipped with a variety of sensors and following a route programmed into the GPS navigation system nimbly accelerated in the entrance lane and merged into fast-moving traffic on Highway 101, the freeway through Silicon Valley.
It drove at the speed limit, which it knew because the limit for every road is included in its database, and left the freeway several exits later. The device atop the car produced a detailed map of the environment.
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” or “turn ahead” in a pleasant female voice.
The car can be programmed for different driving personalities — from cautious, in which it is more likely to yield to another car, to aggressive, where it is more likely to go first.
Christopher Urmson, a Carnegie Mellon University robotics scientist, was behind the wheel but not using it. To gain control of the car he has to do one of three things: hit a red button near his right hand, touch the brake or turn the steering wheel.
He did so twice, once when a bicyclist ran a red light and again when a car in front stopped and began to back into a parking space. But the car seemed likely to have prevented an accident itself.
He said that the cars did attract attention, but people seem to think they are just the next generation of the Street View cars that Google uses to take photographs and collect data for its maps.
The project is the brainchild of Sebastian Thrun, the 43-year-old director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, a Google engineer and the co-inventor of the Street View mapping service.
In 2005, he led a team of Stanford students and faculty members in designing the Stanley robot car, winning the second Grand Challenge of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a $2 million Pentagon prize for driving autonomously over 132 miles in the desert.
Besides the team of 15 engineers working on the current project, Google hired more than a dozen people, each with a spotless driving record, to sit in the driver’s seat, paying $15 an hour or more. Google is using six Priuses and an Audi TT in the project.
The Google researchers said the company did not yet have a clear plan to create a business from the experiments. One way internet search giant might be able to profit is to provide information and navigation services for makers of autonomous vehicles. Or, it might sell or give away the navigation technology itself, much as it offers its Android smart phone system to cellphone companies.
But the advent of autonomous vehicles poses thorny legal issues, the Google researchers acknowledged. Under current law, a human must be in control of a car at all times, but what does that mean if the human is not really paying attention as the car crosses through, say, a school zone, figuring that the robot is driving more safely than he would?
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 Google researchers said they had carefully examined California’s motor vehicle regulations and determined that because a human driver can override any error, the experimental cars are legal and Mr. Lu agreed with it.
“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,” said Sebastian Thrun.
He continued: “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.” [Google Blog via Daily Telegraph (UK) and NY Times]