A future with self-driving cars has been anticipated since Norman Bel Geddes showcased his ‘Futurama’ exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s fair. The display, a miniaturized model of a city prowled by 50,000 robot vehicles and controlled by centralized radio waves, boldly predicted that cars would be driverless by 1959.
The prediction may have been a few decades off, but thanks to technological advances from Google, it’s finally one step closer to becoming a reality.
Google’s “moonshot” autonomous car project (which, like Google Glass, originated in the secretive Google X lab) started in 2009, and has come a long way in five years. The vehicles have driven over 700,000 autonomous miles, and have mastered staying in a lane and maintaining speed on the highway.
Now, with freeway travel under the car’s belt, researchers are addressing the complexities of driving on a city street.
The Lexus SUVs are packed with about $150,000 of equipment to help in this endeavor, including a $70,000 radar-like LIDAR system, lasers, and cameras. These devices help create detailed 3D maps of the environment. So far, about 2,000 miles of roads have been mapped with the LIDAR so they can be driven by Google’s cars.
Cameras also take pictures of objects surrounding the car. Google’s software then sorts the objects into four categories: moving vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, and static objects like signs, sidewalks, curbs, and parked cars.
The technology has become so advanced that it can now read stop signs (including those in the hands of a crossing guard,) detect sudden stops, swerve around construction cones, and can see cyclists motioning a turn. Besides a few instances where the cars have been bumped at stop lights, there have been no accidents.
Despite these advances, researchers are still testing the vehicles and working out some kinks, like driving in variable weather that could affect the sensors. At a May 13 Google Xpress event at the Computer History Museum, the Google self-driving car team’s software lead Dmitri Dolgov stated that the vehicles still had trouble in rain, drive as good as humans in heavy fog, but haven’t attempted snow driving.
“We still have lots of problems to solve,” Chris Urmson, the project director of the self-driving car project, states in a blog post. “But thousands of situations on city streets that would have stumped us two years ago can now be navigated autonomously.”
If autonomous cars do become mainstream, they could ultimately usher in an era of safety. Studies have shown that 90 percent of automobile accidents are caused by human error, and that annually there are 33,000 automobile related deaths in the United States. With sensors and pre-planned strategies to deal with issues as they occur, autonomous cars have the potential to reduce this number.
Self-driving cars can also help provide elderly and the disabled with more mobility, keep beginner drivers safe, and also decrease the number of deaths and accidents from distracted driving due to texting, using a cell phone, or eating and drinking.
Besides making the roads safer, the Google team believes its cars could advance society in other ways. In announcing the project in 2010, Google X lab founder Sebastian Thrun states, “The technology will transform car sharing, significantly reducing car usage, as well as help create the new ‘highway trains of tomorrow.’” Google also believe the cars will lead to a more pleasant and productive commute for American workers.
But despite the potential benefits, the road to getting these autonomous cars to the mass consumer will be a bumpy one. There are multiple political and social issues that need to be dealt with first.
“Among the big questions are, who is responsible if there’s an accident?” says Susan Shaheen, the co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley at the Xpress event.
If a crash occurred with an autonomous car and an injury or fatality occurs, who would be at fault? Would the car manufacturer be held liable, or would it be the fault of the individual in the car? There’s also the issue of creating regulations for these vehicles. So far, only California, Nevada, Florida, Michigan, and Washington D.C., have written any sort of laws around driverless cars.
Having a self-driving car on the market is still about six years away according to the Google team, so there is still time to hash out these issues. They will also, in that time, have to get more roads mapped, bring down costs, configure designs to be more consumer friendly, address privacy and security questions, and solve the weather-related problems the car still displays.
It’s a long checklist, and it’s one that Google will have to figure out quickly or risk losing their lead in the robot car race. Car manufacturers, like General Motors, Ford, Tesla, Volvo, Nissan, BMW, and Audi are all developing self-driving tech. Each manufacturer is customizing software to fit their brand, and are looking at the same 2020 release as Google.
Image courtesy of Google