The Future is Here: Google Robot Cars Hit Milestone

google_robotcaIt’s no secret that amongst its many cooky and futuristic projects, self-driving cars are something Google hopes to make real within the next few years. Late last month, Google’s fleet of autonomous automobiles reached an important milestone. After many years of testing out on the roads of California and Nevada, they logged well 0ver one-million kilometers (700,000 miles) of accident-free driving. To celebrate, Google has released a new video that demonstrates some impressive software improvements that have been made over the last two years.

Most notably, the video demonstrates how its self-driving cars can now track hundreds of objects simultaneously – including pedestrians, an indicating cyclist, a stop sign held by a crossing guard, or traffic cones. This is certainly exciting news for Google and enthusiasts of automated technology, as it demonstrates that the ability of the vehicles to obey the rules of the road and react to situations that are likely to emerge and require decisions to be made.

google_robotcar_mapIn the video, we see the Google’s car reacting to railroad crossings, large stationary objects, roadwork signs and cones, and cyclists. In the case of the cyclist — not only are the cars able to discern whether the cyclist wants to move left or right, it even watches out for cyclists coming from behind when making a right turn. And while the demo certainly makes the whole process seem easy and fluid, there is actually a considerable amount of work going on behind the scenes.

For starters, there are around $150,000 of equipment in each car performing real-time LIDAR and 360-degree computer vision – a complex and computing-intensive task. The software powering the whole process is also the result of years of development. Basically, every single driving situation that can possibly occur has to be anticipated and then painstakingly programmed into the software. This is an important qualifier when it comes to these “autonomous vehicles”. They are not capable of independent judgement, only following pre-programmed instructions.

BMW 7 Series F01 July 2009 Miramas FranceWhile a lot has been said about the expensive LIDAR hardware, the most impressive aspect of the innovations is the computer vision. While LIDAR provides a very good idea of the lay of the land and the position of large objects (like parked cars), it doesn’t help with spotting speed limits or “construction ahead” signs, and whether what’s ahead is a cyclist or a railroad crossing barrier. And Google has certainly demonstrated plenty of adeptness in the past, what with their latest versions of Street View and their Google Glass project.

Naturally, Google says that it has lots of issues to overcome before its cars are ready to move out from their home town of Mountain View, California and begin driving people around. For instance, the road maps needed to be finely tuned and expanded, and Google is likely to be selling map packages in the future in the same way that apps are sold for smartphones. In the mean time, the adoption of technologies like adaptive cruise control (ACC) and lane keep assist (LKA) will bring lots of almost-self-driving cars to the road over the next few years.

In the meantime, be sure to check out the video of the driverless car in action:


Robot Cars in Five Years?

Could it be, that after decades of failed predictions, especially where flying cars were concerned, that science is finally making good on its promise of robot cars? Well, according to Google co-founder Sergey Brin, that’s what’s going to happen. Just two days ago, Brin was on hand for the signing of a bill in the California legislature which establishes safety and performance standards for cars operated by computers on California roads and highways. As the third state to pass this law – Nevada and Florida have already signed similar provisions – California will now allow licensed drivers to use automated vehicles, once they become commonplace.

Apparently, Google has been testing the concept quite extensively. Several prototypes have been developed, and over 300,000 miles worth of driving have been conducted for the sake of testing the software. Brin admits that their are bugs that still need to be worked out, such as improving the sensors and hardware failure supports for the technology. In addition, there are the big challenges of adapting the vehicles to “tricky situations”, such as weather conditions, temporary construction, and emergency vehicles. In any and all of these cases, the robots need to be able to interpret the situation and respond accordingly.

However, Sergey and Larry are confident, stating that “Our vehicles, of which about a dozen are on the road at any given time, have now completed more than 300,000 miles of testing. They’ve covered a wide range of traffic conditions, and there hasn’t been a single accident under computer control.” And, unless science fiction and futursist have been lying to me all this time, the robot cars are likely to come with manual control as well, just in case the driver feels the need to take the wheel and do a little hands-on driving! After all, the purpose of this technology is ensure our safety and comfort right? And what’s more comfortable than turning on the autopilot?

Source: CNET News