Google has built a fleet of cars that drive themselves, and over the past several months, these robotic vehicles have driven over 140,000 miles on public roads, from the Pacific Coast Highway to the famous twists and turns of San Francisco's Lombard Street.
As the company revealed on Saturday morning with a blog post, each car is equipped with video cameras, radar sensors, and a laser range finder that alerts the vehicle to other traffic, and they navigate using maps previously collected by cars that were driven by good old fashioned human beings.
The self-driving cars, Google says, are never unmanned. A human sits in the driver seat and can take control of the car at anytime, and according to a New York Times story that coincided with Google's blog post, the California Department of Motor Vehicles has deemed the cars legal because a human can override the automated controls.
But a staff counsel for the department also says that the cars are "ahead of the law" in many areas. "“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,” he tells The Times. It's unclear, for instance, who would be responsible if the car caused an accident.
Google says it has briefed the local police on the cars. "We always have a trained safety driver behind the wheel who can take over as easily as one disengages cruise control," its blog post reads.
The company's blog post says it has driven the cars on public streets "recently." But one video – captured by a random driver who didn't realize at the time what he was seeing – indicates that the vehicles have been on the roads since November of last year:
According to Google's blog post, the project aims to improve car safety and efficiency. "Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use," the post reads." According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.2 million lives are lost every year in road traffic accidents. We believe our technology has the potential to cut that number, perhaps by as much as half. We’re also confident that self-driving cars will transform car sharing, significantly reducing car usage, as well as help create the new 'highway trains of tomorrow.'
"These highway trains should cut energy consumption while also increasing the number of people that can be transported on our major roads. In terms of time efficiency, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that people spend on average 52 minutes each working day commuting. Imagine being able to spend that time more productively."
Google calls this an experimental project, and the Times story indicates that the company believes that cars can't be publicly deployed for at least another eight years.
In 2004, the Pentagon began sponsoring races for self-driven vehicles – the DARPA Challenges – and Google has recruited "very best engineers" from these competitions, including Chris Urmson, the technical leader of the Carnegie Mellon University team that won the 2007 Urban Challenge, and Mike Montemerlo, the software lead for the Stanford University team that won the 2005 Grand Challenge, a race across the desert. The project is headed by Sebastian Thrun, the director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and a Google engineer who co-invented the company's Street View mapping service.
Thurn lead a team that won the second Grand Challenge.
Naturally, Google says it has no firm plans to actually make money from the project. But speaking with The Times, it seems to indicate that it might be able to profit by providing information and navigation services for makers of self-driving vehicles. ®