Google test drives autonomous vehicles

Posted by Trent Nouveau

Google has deployed a fleet of autonomous cars equipped with radar sensors and laser range finders capable of "seeing" and interacting with other vehicles on the road.

Indeed, the automated cars - reportedly manned by "trained operators" - have already navigated from Mountain View to Santa Monica and on to Hollywood Boulevard.

"They've driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles," confirmed Google software engineer Sebastian Thrun.

"This is all made possible by Google's data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain."

Unsurprisingly, Thrun sought to allay any (inevitable) concerns over the company's autonomous vehicle project.

"Safety has been our first priority - [and that is why] our cars are never unmanned. We always have a trained safety driver behind the wheel who can take over as easily as one disengages cruise control. [In addition], we have a trained software operator in the passenger seat to monitor the software.

"[And] any test begins by sending out a driver in a conventionally driven car to map the route and road conditions. By mapping features like lane markers and traffic signs, the software in the car becomes familiar with the environment and its characteristics in advance."

According to Thrun, Google believes that its autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to significantly cut road traffic fatalities, which currently claims 1.2 million lives per year.

"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.

"[Although] this project is very much in the experimental stage, it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future thanks to advanced computer science. And that future is very exciting," he added.