Monday, October 18, 2010

Google Developing Self-Piloted Cars

Google Developing Self-Piloted Cars
Mark Kurlyandchik - October 11, 2010

A New York Times report has outlined the details of a secret Google project to truly put the "auto" in automobile. The Mountainview, California-based tech company has tested seven cars that have driven without the aid of a human for 1,000 miles, and more than 140,000 miles with minimal human intervention.

The project was created by Google engineer and co-inventor of Google's Street View, Sebastian Thrun, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. In 2005, Thrun led a team from the university to win a $2 million Pentagon prize for designing the Stanley robot car, which drove autonomously for more than 132 miles.

For the current project, Google outfitted six Toyota Priuses and an Audi TT with advanced mapping technology and artificial intelligence software that can sense objects near the car and mimic human driver decisions. A passenger has been present to make minor adjustments, like when a bicyclist ran a red light during a recent test drive.

Google's motivation for the project, its engineers say, is to make the roads safer. "Robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated, the engineers argue," NYT noted. Autonomous cars could double the capacity of our current roads by allowing them to be driven closer together, and, because of the decreased likelihood of a crash, could be made out of lighter materials, translating to better fuel efficiency.

The only reported crash, engineers said, was when one of the autonomous cars was rear-ended while stopped at a red light. Otherwise, one of the cars even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, what NYT calls "one of the steepest and curviest streets in the nation." The cars can be programmed with different driving personalities -- "cautious" is more defensive, while "aggressive" is, well, more aggressive.

Google has 15 engineers working on the project, as well as at least a dozen people with clean driving records hired to sit in the driver's seat as a precautionary measure.

But Google isn't the only party working on a self-piloted car. Researchers at Yale and NYU recently unveiled a human vision-based supercomputer called NeuFlow, which will aide in navigating cars in the future. A few years ago, DailyTech went for a ride in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge winner, a fully autonomous Chevy Tahoe.

Self-piloted autos are still years away from mass production, NYT notes, because computers have to become much more stable and less likely to crash, for one thing. Another obstacle beyond the technological aspect is the law. “The technology is ahead of the law in many areas,” Bernard Lu, a senior attorney for the California DMV told NYT. “If you look at the vehicle code, there are dozens of laws pertaining to the driver of a vehicle, and they all presume to have a human being operating the vehicle.” Google has argued that, because there is a human being present to override any decisions of the automobiles, its experiments are legal. Lu agreed.

But there are those who believe that the technology could change society as profoundly as the Internet has. Google has not revealed a clear business plan for the new technology, but both Thrun and Google co-founder Larry Page have a shared commitment to increase the nation's highway safety and efficiency, sources say.

At least one thing is certain, autonomous cars, when perfected, would save more lives than any texting-while-driving bans.


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