Monday, October 18, 2010

Google self-driving car in the works

Google self-driving car in the works
Google is at it again. In a show of its willingness to experiment with technologies that won’t pay off for years to come, the search giant is now taking a stab at cars that can drive itself in highway or city traffic.

Anyone driving on California’s route 101 between San Francisco and Palo Alto in the last eight months would have spotted a small fleet of Prius’ with a man seemingly sitting idle on the wheel. That is clearly not the case. It’s Google’s software and hardware hard at work.

A few photos and video of the Google self-driving car iare now available online; we have reproduced them here for you.

Using artificial-intelligence software that can sense anything near the car and mimic the decisions made by a human driver, Google is hoping these cars will be the way of the future. There is of course a human driver to take control if any oops! moments are about to occur. There is also a Google techie looking after the navigation and software systems from the passenger seat.

Google’s fleet of seven Prius’ and one Audi TT have driven some 1,000 miles without human control and more than 140,000 miles with occasional human intervention. One of these Prius’ could even drive itself up and down San Francisco’s (in)famous Lombard Street, one of the steepest and bendiest streets in the United States. The only accident so far, engineers say, was when one such ‘driverless’ car was slammed from the back while waiting at a red light.

Automated cars have been around for years and futurists have been crying hoarse that they can change the world and its roads much the same way the internet, or should we say Google search has.

Automated, or robot drivers, react faster than humans, don’t drink and drive, don’t get road rage, don’t get distracted, sleepy or lazy. They have a 360 degree of awareness, knows all the routes beforehand thanks to global positioning systems (GPS). In 2008, in the United States alone, some 37,000 people died in road accidents (1.2 million globally, U.N. reckons). Google says that their driverless cars can bring this number down significantly thanks to the inherent advantages of a computer driving a car.

Google’s engineers say these cars could double the capacity of roads be allowing cars to drive closer together at higher speeds. Also, because, they reckon, computer-driven cars are less likely to crash, cars can be built lighter, presumably with less physical safety features, lowering the cars weight significantly. And low eight equals less fuel consumed and thus less emissions too.

During a half-hour drive with The New York Times recently, the car, beginning on Google’s campus in Mountain View, California, equipped with a variety of sensors and following a programmed route nimbly accelerated in the entrance lane and merged into fast-moving highway traffic.

It consistently 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 car then drove through rush-hour 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 (duh!) voice. This same system, Google says, would alert the driver if anything was amiss with any of the car’s multiple sensors.

The most brilliant thing about this technology is that it can be apparently be adapted to make the passengers comfortable. Currently, there are two settings: ‘cautious and aggressive.’

In ‘cautious’ mode, the car will be more submissive and gallant – letting other cars onto the highway before itself; while in ‘aggressive’ mode, the car will try to do so first and while leaving a little less room for errors.

However, even the most optimistic of predictions put the deployment of the technology more than eight years away. But the lack of an obvious and immediate route to profit is not discouraging Google. This is an encouraging sign. Google has never shied away from experimental technologies that may be expensive now but reaps many more millions in the future.

One way it could profit is by leasing or selling the technology it develops to other driverless car manufacturers. It could also supply the car’s hardware to such firms. Oh and don’t forget advertising. With the car driving itself, Google can keep streaming ads to your cellphone, laptop or car screens itself.

To make this possible, Google gathered some of the best engineers from the DARPA Challenges, a series of autonomous vehicle races organized by the U.S. government. The project however, 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 Google’s Street View mapping service.

“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,” Thrun said on Google’s blog. “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.”
Let’s just hope there are no ‘error 500s’ on the way!

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