KING (ROBOT) OF THE ROAD: The Google fleet consists of conventional vehicles--six Priuses and one Audi--that have been outfitted with off-the-shelf components consisting of two forward-facing video cameras, a 360-degree laser range finder, four radar sensors and advanced GPS units. Image: COURTESY OF GOOGLE
Long a staple of science fiction, self-driving vehicles that act as robot chauffeurs have been a cultural dream for decades. For most of that time, however, the dream seemed a part of some unattainable future.
But now, led in large part by Google's sudden and unexpected charge, autonomous robot cars come tantalizingly close to reality. As various mapping, sensing and location-based technologies have converged recently, Google has begun to position itself as the leader of our robo-chauffeur future. Yet for all of the technology's promise, it still has some major—and perhaps insurmountable—hurdles to overcome.
Google estimates that one million lives could be saved around the globe by driverless cars each year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in the U.S. alone there were 5.8 million crashes in 2008. Of those, about 34,000 resulted in fatalities, 1.6 million resulted in injuries and 4.2 million entailed some sort of property damage. The NHTSA says these numbers have come down over time—attesting at least partly to the ever-increasing safety of all vehicles—but they clearly still account for a large amount of deaths, injuries and property damage that driverless cars could drastically reduce.
Gigantic leaps with off-the-shelf components
Forty years ago the first self-driving cars were little more than crude, slow-moving contraptions following lines painted on the road. The past several years, however, have seen accelerated success in the quest for autonomous road vehicles, starting with a series of self-driving challenges the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held between 2004 and 2007 to help develop robots that could replace some U.S. military personnel on the battlefield.
Last year, a group of engineers from Stanford University Dynamic Design Laboratory, the Electronics Research Laboratory for the Volkswagen Group and software-maker Oracle Corp. shifted driverless cars into a higher gear by successfully running their 265-horsepower Autonomous Audi TTS Pikes Peak research car up the 20-kilometer course of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb race in Colorado without stopping. The sporty hatchback—Volkswagen owns Audi—carried two computers in its trunk, both using Oracle's Java Real-Time System to run algorithms that kept the car on the road and at the limits of its handling ability on the varying surfaces and conditions.
Google's self-driving car project exited stealth mode last year and now the company is lobbying Nevada to be the first state to allow self-driving cars to be legally operated on public roads. To this point, Google's robot fleet has traveled more than 240,000 kilometers with minimal human intervention and only one incident in which a test car was rear-ended by another (human-driven) vehicle. Unlike the futuristic sci-fi images splashed on movie screens, the Google fleet consists of conventional vehicles—six Priuses and one Audi—that have been outfitted with off-the-shelf components consisting of two forward-facing video cameras, a 360-degree laser range finder, four radar sensors and advanced GPS units.
The Google project is very much an offshoot of the DARPA challenges. In fact, many of the members of the Google team are alumni of those competitions and brought the lessons learned during that time with them.
"Certainly there have been a lot of advances in sensor technology that are allowing us to do this today versus 15 years ago," says Chris Urmson, technical lead for the Google project and a lead on the Carnegie Mellon team that won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. "But we see the real power as being in the software that's taking that data and figuring out what to do with it."
It is a vehicle's ability to interpret what is going on in its surroundings and then react appropriately that represents perhaps the biggest technical challenge for the future of self-driving cars.
An issue of common sense
An aspect of Google's project often lost on the casual observer is that its cars are not completely autonomous, even when no human is helping drive them. In order for the vehicles to function the route needs to be driven by a human ahead of time in one of the test cars and mapped using its array of sensors. This rich set of mapping data is then stored on a Google data center and a portion of it is loaded into the car's hard drive. The location of stoplights, school zones and anything else that is reasonably static is marked so the car will acknowledge them without having to interpret them in real-time.