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The lowdown on the Google self-driving car

16 Sep 2014  Written By: Beaurepaires

A car that can drive itself? Of course Google is on top of it! Beaurepaires fills you in on the latest developments with Google’s self-driving car project.

If you happen to read technology blogs every now and then, you’ve probably heard of the Google self-driving car already. After all, the auto industry and news publications across the web have been eagerly tracking the development of this particular innovation for months – or years, even.

For those of you who aren’t in the know, the Google self-driving car is an ongoing project that develops technology for autonomous cars. With all the possibilities this represents, the project has created its fair share of excitement and anticipation (as well as some controversy) over the last few years. While autonomous cars are certainly an exciting prospect and the Google self-driving car has seen many developments in recent months, there’s still a long way to go before these prototypes will be a common sight on your morning commute.

Whether or not you personally fancy the idea of owning and operating (or more accurately, not operating) a hands-free vehicle, it’s certainly a fascinating venture. Keep reading to find out more about the self-driving car and its promising future on the streets.

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How the Google self-driving car came into being

Google engineer Sebastian Thrun first wrote about the company’s self-driving car on the official Google blog in October 2010. He discussed the work conducted thus far on the project (at that point, prototypes monitored by trained operators had already logged over 140,000 miles in testing) and posited tentative hopes for future improvements in the development and construction of self-driving cars.

The software that drives these vehicles (pun fully intended) is known as Google Chauffeur. Google Chauffeur uses video cameras, radar sensors, and a laser range finder in order to collect information about the surrounding roads and traffic conditions for each vehicle. This information is then processed by Google’s data centers, which allows each vehicle to create a comprehensive 3D map of its environment. When cross-referenced with high-resolution maps of the world, this information enables Google’s autonomous vehicles to successfully navigate their way on public roads. This incredible technology was developed by a group of expert engineers from the DARPA Challenges, including Chris Urmson, Mike Montemerlo, and Anthony Levandowski.

Further development over the years

By August 2012, Google’s self-driving cars had completed over 300,000 miles of testing. Earlier that year, Morgan Hill California resident Steve Mahan was one of the first ever users of Google’s self-driving car. Mahan, who stated that ninety-five percent of his vision had gone and that he was “well past legally blind,” greatly enjoyed the ride (which took him through a drive-thru restaurant and to his local drycleaner) and highlighted the advantages of the vehicle, remarking that it would allow him a great degree of independence and flexibility in his everyday life.

Google revealed their fully autonomous model in 2014. Until this point, they had been reconfiguring various aspects of other vehicles in order to create partially autonomous prototypes. In May, however, Google introduced self-driving cars that they had built from scratch and which operated without any human control whatsoever – hence, the lack of steering wheels, pedals or gearshifts. While this deceptively simple design might understandably unnerve some drivers, Google co-founder Sergey Brin emphasized that these vehicles do feature specially customised safety features that are hidden but fully functional, as well as extra defensive programming that strictly adheres to road rules to further ensure the safety of passengers.

Pros and cons of the self-driving car

The future certainly looks bright for Google and their self-driving cars, as the potential benefits are numerous. Google has pointed out that the widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles would not only ensure less road accidents (due to intoxication, inebriation, or general human inattention) occur, but could also help to ease congestion, increase mobility, improve fuel efficiency, and even free up land space.

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On the other hand, there are still a lot of hurdles that need to be cleared before these nifty vehicles will be accepted, and adopted, on a widespread level. The car is very much a prototype at the moment, and while the last couple years have seen them zipping around the Googleplex without incident, all that could change if (or when) these vehicles are unleashed on public roads. The technology is certainly fascinating, but if the online debates are anything to go by, it may be some time before human beings are ready to put their faith in fully autonomous cars. Furthermore, there will likely be strict safety and regulatory standards and legal challenges in place for incidents or accidents that will inevitably occur at some point involving the self-driving vehicles.

The way forward

One day, in a far off future, cars won’t just be able to drive themselves – they’ll probably be able to fly themselves. Until that distant point, it’s interesting to see the amount of progress Google has made with their self-driving cars in just a few short years. Google have predicted that their autonomous vehicles will publicly available between 2017 and 2020, but until then, it looks like we’re stuck with ordinary human-operated vehicles. Though it’s clear that some people would prefer it to always be that way!