Google's robot cars

The search giant is developing cars that drive themselves. Should we be impressed — or concerned?

Google's new robot cars can sense anything near them and mimic the decisions a human driver would make.
(Image credit: YouTube)

This Saturday, Google took a break from challenging Apple to announce its latest strategy for world domination: Robot cars. The company has spent years developing vehicles equipped with "artificial-intelligence software that can sense anything near the car and mimic the decisions made by a human" — with the long-term goal of letting human drivers rely on their cars' wisdom, intervening only when necessary. On Sunday, The New York Times took an in-depth look at the new technology. (Watch a robot car in action.) Here's a concise guide:

What makes the cars so smart?

A series of strategically positioned sensors: A "rotating sensor" on top of the car "scans more than 200 feet in all directions to generate a precise three-dimensional map of the car's surroundings"; a camera adjacent to the rear-view mirror, meanwhile, "detects traffic lights and helps the car's on-board computers recognize moving obstacles like pedestrians and bicyclists"; additional sensors "help determine the positions of distant objects."

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What determines how the cars react to the data?

The robot cars "can be programmed for different driving personalities" that determine, say, whether the car will yield cautiously to another vehicle or barrel ahead.

Have they been a success so far?

In tests with a human behind the steering wheel (ready to take over at any time) the seven Google cars — six Priuses and an Audi TT — have driven "more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control." According to Google, the cars have maneuvered "down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe." In all that time, the only accident that occurred came "when one Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light."

Who's behind the project?

Google recruited engineers from "a series of autonomous vehicle races organized by the U.S. Government" and known as the DARPA challenge. Sebastian Thrun, the main "brainpower" behind the robot cars is a Stanford professor and Google engineer who helped win the second iteration of DARPA — a "$2 million Pentagon prize for driving autonomously over 132 miles in the desert."

What benefits might robot cars bring?

Google engineers are evangelists when it comes to road safety, claiming that robot cars could greatly reduce the 37,000 road deaths in the United States each year. Robots, according to the engineers, "react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated." Beyond that, "the technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing cars to drive more safely while closer together."

When will they hit the mainstream?

Human-free cars are a long way from becoming a regular sight — "even the most optimistic predictions put the deployment of the technology more than eight years away."

Sources: The New York Times, Google, Popular Science

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