Google’s Self-Driving Cars

Automaton has an article on how Google’s self-driving cars work. If you weren’t aware, these cars have been on the road for some time now with test drivers behind the wheel, but it’s unclear when autonomous cars will actually be available to consumers. There are probably innumerable legal hurdles to overcome first; as a first step, in June Nevada became the first state to allow legal operation of driverless vehicles on public roads. 

Google had a keynote speech on this emerging technology, videos of which are embedded at the end of this post.

From Automaton:

Google’s fleet of robotic Toyota Priuses has now logged more than 190,000 miles (about 300,000 kilometers), driving in city traffic, busy highways, and mountainous roads with only occasional human intervention. The project is still far from becoming commercially viable, but Google has set up a demonstration system on its campus, using driverless golf carts, which points to how the technology could change transportation even in the near future…

Urmson, who is the tech lead for the project, said that the “heart of our system” is a laser range finder mounted on the roof of the car. The device, a Velodyne 64-beam laser, generates a detailed 3D map of the environment. The car then combines the laser measurements with high-resolution maps of the world, producing different types of data models that allow it to drive itself while avoiding obstacles and respecting traffic laws.

The vehicle also carries other sensors, which include: four radars, mounted on the front and rear bumpers, that allow the car to “see” far enough to be able to deal with fast traffic on freeways; a camera, positioned near the rear-view mirror, that detects traffic lights; and a GPS, inertial measurement unit, and wheel encoder, that determine the vehicle’s location and keep track of its movements…

Thrun and his Google colleagues, including co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, are convinced that smarter vehicles could help make transportation safer and more efficient: Cars would drive closer to each other, making better use of the 80 percent to 90 percent of empty space on roads, and also form speedy convoys on freeways. They would react faster than humans to avoid accidents, potentially saving thousands of lives. Making vehicles smarter will require lots of computing power and data, and that’s why it makes sense for Google to back the project, Thrun said in his keynote.

Urmson described another scenario they envision: Vehicles would become a shared resource, a service that people would use when needed. You’d just tap on your smartphone, and an autonomous car would show up where you are, ready to drive you anywhere. You’d just sit and relax or do work.

Sounds utopian. Somehow I feel like the technology would be outdated by the time large social and commercial trends allowed for that scenario though. Anyway, here are the three pieces of Google’s latest presentation on this project; the second one is the “how it works” one, if you want to get down to business.

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