According to the most recently released official figures1, almost 27,000 pedestrians and road users died in road traffic accidents in the UK. In the USA this figure is almost 40,0002.
Back in 2004 the worldwide reported death toll was a staggering 1.2 million unnecessary fatalities3. Small wonder that governments and development agencies have sought to reduce this.
Google stunned the world when it announced that it was developing a self driving car. Science fiction? Not now. Ever since television and film brought us self driving vehicles like K.I.T.T. (Knight Rider) or the Johnny Cab (Total Recall) electric vehicles, the idea has been there but just not put into practice in the real world.
The surprise was further compounded when they also announced that they had actually been road-testing a fleet of these prototype cars on public roads in California. 140,000 miles had already been clocked up! Although these vehicles had been manned (both for safety and legal reasons) Google insists that their technology was doing all the work. Before each test drive the local Police authority was informed, the routes were carefully worked out and bizarrely the legal ramifications were covered by laws governing cruise control.
So far these modified Toyota Prius’ (what else!) have traversed San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge, negotiated the city’s famous hillside streets, driven between Google’s offices and made it around the gorgeous Lake Tahoe in one piece. Photographs and videos have started appearing on the web in ever greater number.
In fact people have started catching site of convoys of the Google car.
So how does it work? Well according to Google’s own blog post4, ‘Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to ‘see’ other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Google’s data centers (sic), which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.’ This is surely an interesting advance in the use of existing technology and combining it into an entirely new application. So let’s take a closer look at the vehicle.
There’s an impressive amount of sensors and cameras present.
If you want further evidence that having humans behind the wheel is the biggest cause of road accidents then look no further than this video showing the Google Prius on the highway. It was filmed by a motorist while he was driving his own car…
If you ignore the lunacy of the film-maker you can see that the Prius manages straight line driving very well. But it’s hardly taxing the technology. On one hand this is good in that it goes somewhere to addressing people’s legitimate concerns over automated vehicles on the public roads. On the other hand, any seasoned driver knows that day to day driving requires more than easy going in straight lines. If you were to trust any automated system to get you safely from A to B then perhaps Google would be better demonstrating their technology in a more demanding situation. Agree? Well take a look at this footage courtesy of Danny Sullivan at searchengineland.
Firstly as a spectator…
Secondly as a passenger…
I’m sure you’ll agree with me that this kind of driving is a whole new ballgame. Aggressive driving can be employed in such a way as to be defensive; reaction speeds and decision-making like this could feasibly outperform any human’s reactions. Google Engineers aver their ‘360-degree perception and [the fact that they] do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated’, make for a safer future.
As a company that made a name for itself as the most popular search engine, it seems a quantum leap to now pursue automated cars. So what’s behind it? To be honest I’m not sure but co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have a history of idealism but I can’t see how the fortune spent on R&D can possibly pay off. Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, says that, ‘Your car should drive itself. It just makes sense. It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers.’ On the assumption that the future is about getting computers to do things we’re not good at this would also free up a lot of commuters’ time. And what could people do with this time? Why, spend more time on the net – Google in particular? So there are money making prospects on the horizon.
A final word from Eric Schmidt: ‘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.’ Imagine how less stressful and how much more quickly you would arrive at your destination if you had one as your city car?
So far, so good. The technology is there, the willing is there but what’s hindering the progress? Well, I’d seriously love to know how much one of these super vehicles would cost me. Like to know the answer too? Well I can’t help you there I’m afraid. As I paraphrase Ray Wert, the Editor in Chief of Jalopnik, ‘If you have to ask, then you can’t afford it.’ As with any technology the price will fall so we’ll just have to wait and see.
The three head honchos of Google, Eric Schmidt Sergey Brin and Larry Page pose for the camera.
For the time being it seems more realistic that some of Google’s technology could be used to aid, rather than supplant, the human driver much in the same way as parking sensors and advanced cruise control assist today.