Google Inc.’s (NASDAQ: GOOG) experiment with driverless cars took a large leap forward as it actually put some of its vehicles on the streets. The multiyear development of the project is about to bear early fruit.
According to a blog post from Chris Urmson, who is Director of the Self-Driving Car Project:
Jaywalking pedestrians. Cars lurching out of hidden driveways. Double-parked delivery trucks blocking your lane and your view. At a busy time of day, a typical city street can leave even experienced drivers sweaty-palmed and irritable. We all dream of a world in which city centers are freed of congestion from cars circling for parking and have fewer intersections made dangerous by distracted drivers. That’s why over the last year we’ve shifted the focus of the Google self-driving car project onto mastering city street driving.
The project remains new enough that the success of a self-driving car that actually navigates all the “distractions” remains up in the air.
Since our last update, we’ve logged thousands of miles on the streets of our hometown of Mountain View, Calif. A mile of city driving is much more complex than a mile of freeway driving, with hundreds of different objects moving according to different rules of the road in a small area. We’ve improved our software so it can detect hundreds of distinct objects simultaneously — pedestrians, buses, a stop sign held up by a crossing guard, or a cyclist making gestures that indicate a possible turn. A self-driving vehicle can pay attention to all of these things in a way that a human physically can’t — and it never gets tired or distracted.
A number of the world’s largest car manufacturers have also been working on self-driving cars. One of the latest is from Volvo. It operates based on a series of magnets embedded in roads. The drawback to the plan is that roads do not have magnets — at least for the time being.
The final barrier to self-driving cars may not be technology. There is no large body of evidence that people want to hand over their driving duties to machines and software. In the meantime, Google’s version continues to navigate the streets of Mountain View, perhaps with the hope that one day the project will rival the company’s search and Android OS businesses. But that will not happen any time soon.