Driving Into the Future: Autonomous Cars
Mar 27, 2012 5:00 AM PT
Self-driving cars are no longer just the stuff of science fiction. Increasingly, they're becoming a reality.
For the last several years, Google has been testing self-driving, autonomous vehicles in California -- and if they ever become mainstream, their promise is better controlled and less deadly roadways.
"We want to improve people's lives by making driving safer, more enjoyable, and more efficient," Jay Nancarrow, a Google spokesperson, told TechNewsWorld. "Over 1.2 million people are killed in traffic worldwide every year, and we think autonomous technology can significantly reduce that number."
Safety, in fact, is one of the major potential benefits of mass-produced self-driving cars.
"It's a very attractive notion to move toward more autonomous technology because of the 30,000-plus deaths that we have on the roads each year," Frank Douma, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, told TechNewsWorld.
"Ninety-five percent of them are attributable at least in part to human error," he pointed out. "People will say they like to drive, but apparently they're not paying that much attention. If you remove the human error part, you can make great advances in safety."
How They Work
Google currently has seven operational autonomous cars, and they incorporate an array of technologies including programmed maps, radar, laser sensors and cameras. The cars go through a rigorous testing and development phase to make sure that all the equipment works and the cars can find their own way down the road.
"Before any route is driven using our automated technology, we first drive the roads ourselves using equipment -- such as cameras, laser sensors and radar -- that helps us create a detailed digital map of all of the features of the road," explained Nancarrow. "By mapping things like lane markers and traffic signs, the software in the car becomes familiar with the environment and its characteristics in advance."
Those early trips with driver assistance prepare the cars for tackling the same roads without assistance.
"When we later drive a route without driver assistance, these same cameras, laser sensors, and radars help determine where other cars are and how fast they are moving," said Nancarrow. "The software controls acceleration and deceleration, and mounted cameras read and interpret traffic lights and other signs."
Laws and regulations are only now catching up with new autonomous vehicle technologies. Nevada, for instance, recently became the first state to enact regulations governing the testing and use of self-driving cars on its roadways.
"The department was approached by representatives from Google, and it was viewed as an opportunity for economic development in an emerging industry," explained Tom Jacobs, chief public information officer for the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles. "Also, given Nevada's varied weather and terrain, the state is good testing ground."
Sen. Alex Padilla has introduced a bill that would direct the California Highway Patrol to develop safety guidelines for the testing of self-driving cars. Though it's yet to be passed, it is a sign that California is trying to move in the same direction as Nevada.
"We began our roughly 200,000 miles of testing our self-driving technology in California, and it's where we've covered the most ground," said Nancarrow. "It's also our home state. We would like to see self-driving vehicles progress to the next stage here. We're very fortunate to have found a supporter with a strong technical background in Sen. Padilla, and we look forward to working with him throughout this process."
Drivers might be concerned about the safety of self-driving cars, but Nancarrow says that they are as safe -- if not more so -- than human-driven vehicles.
"We've taken the safety of the public, our drivers and our equipment with the utmost seriousness since the start of the project," said Nancarrow. "Every car has two people inside: a specially trained safety driver who monitors road conditions and traffic, and a specially trained software operator who monitors the computer system."
Those human drivers ensure that the robotic car in their care does not do anything too wild.
"They can take over control easily and at any time -- similar to disengaging cruise control mode," said Nancarrow. "We also perform heavy software testing before releasing it into cars that will appear in traffic to minimize the number of errors in the software, and we enroll all safety drivers in a special driving school for training and certification."
Google is continuing to develop new features and plans for its autonomous cars, which might soon become a reality for everyday consumers and not just techno-geeks.
"We have been steadily developing and improving the technology for several years, adding functionality and increasing the consistency of the overall experience," said Nancarrow. "We plan to continue testing the cars in a variety of conditions, increasing the reliability of the technology."