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4/28/2014
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Google Self-Driving Cars Get Smarter

Google admits it still has many problems to solve before self-driving cars become commonplace on our streets.

Google's 10 Big Bets On The Future
Google's 10 Big Bets On The Future
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Google's quest to build and deploy cars that drive themselves has been going well. On Monday, Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving car project, said the company's autonomous vehicles have logged more than 700,000 miles.

"With every passing mile we're growing more optimistic that we're heading toward an achievable goal -- a vehicle that operates fully without human intervention," Urmson said in a blog post.

Since its last progress report on the project in August 2012, Google has improved the software that controls its cars to enable the detection of hundreds of distinct objects at once. Urmson says Google's technology can track pedestrians, road signs, cyclists, and a variety of other objects and entities without human liabilities like fatigue or distraction.

The chaos of a city street is fairly predictable to a computer, said Urmson; Google has trained its software by driving thousands of miles on the streets of Mountain View, Calif., where the company is based. Google has built software models for a wide variety of scenarios, from cars stopping at red lights to cars ignoring stoplights, he said. Thousands of situations that would have stumped Google's cars two years ago -- such as the unexpected placement of orange construction cones in a road -- can now be navigated without human aid.

To teach its computers to drive, Google sends employees out to ride with its cars and document anomalous conditions. These scenarios are presented to engineers who then have to implement an appropriate response. Beyond creating algorithms to navigate through areas with road work, Google's cars now slow down when approaching large objects, like a truck parked on a road's shoulder.

Google has also trained its cars to handle railroad crossings, where last year there were 2,087 train-vehicle collisions, 251 fatalities, and 929 injuries, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. When its autonomous vehicles detect train tracks and crossing signs, Google's software waits to make sure the tracks are clear of other vehicles before driving across, to eliminate the chance of being caught behind another car and waiting there as a train approaches.

Cyclists have been accorded special status in Google's software. When an object identified as a cyclist uses a hand signal, Google's cars have been trained to slow down in anticipation of the cyclist's pending lane change. The car will continue to yield to cyclists even when it gets mixed signals from the cyclist, a Google video explains.

Such deference, while advisable for safety, may make Google self-driving cars the object of scorn among human drivers, who tend to prize speed over caution. Imagine how you would react if, during your commute, every other driver stuck to the speed limit and yielded to everything. It would feel as if the road had been taken over by the elderly. What's more, human drivers may not feel the need to drive politely around robot cars.

Then there's the question of how to deal with rage against the machine, something Google already confronts as it buses employees to and from work. In a town like San Francisco, where the relationship between cars and cyclists is often antagonistic, cyclists might be delighted to bring autonomous cars to heel with hand gestures. In a similar vein, imagine how easy it would be for vandals to blind autonomous car sensors using stickers, spray paint, or some other opaque substance.

Google may be able to teach its cars how to behave around people, but judging by the way people abuse computers online, by the tech-hostile climate in San Francisco, and by the social issues facing wearers of Google Glass, the company will have a much harder time teaching people how to behave around its cars.

Anthony Levandowsky, manager of the self-driving car project, said last year that Google was aiming to deploy its self-driving car technology in some form by 2018.

What do Uber, Bank of America, and Walgreens have to do with your mobile app strategy? Find out in the new Maximizing Mobility issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest.

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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jgherbert
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jgherbert,
User Rank: Ninja
4/30/2014 | 12:36:25 AM
Re: Commuting is a waste of life.

"People will be too busy browsing the Internet, playing games, watching a movie, etc. while relaxing in the vehicle. Commuting is a waste of life."

 

Yes, it is. I think it will be a while though before we relax in these vehicles. As a driver I am often uncomfortable as a passenger because other drivers don't drive the way I do (they make different decisions, move the car differently, have different margins of safety, etc.) Others have said though that letting the car drive itself is a huge control issue. 

I give
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I give,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/29/2014 | 9:09:31 PM
How will people be trained to be proper?
Behaving with a degree of propriety has been on the wane for the past several decades.  

I mean would you ever fly in an airlplane that is on autopilot at 30,000 feet?  What are those pilots there for anyway?  The passengers would never stand for it.

Plus, why would anyone want to buy bread made in some factory somewhere when they can do it at home with flour, water, eggs and yeast?  
Drew Conry-Murray
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Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
4/29/2014 | 4:21:38 PM
Re: Food for thought
Re: Lawyers. That's easy, they'll just sue Google. And I see a very lucrative market for expert witnesses who can read logs.
asksqn
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asksqn,
User Rank: Ninja
4/29/2014 | 4:11:03 PM
Food for thought
The hostility against tech companies in SF aside (due 100% to socio-economic differences) let's imagine a world where self driving cars are the norm.  Just how will the legal industry adapt when there won't be an easy target to blame for fenderbenders.  
NJ Mike
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NJ Mike,
User Rank: Strategist
4/29/2014 | 3:43:09 PM
Re: Do you want self-driving cars on the road with you?
The same older people who can't figure out how to use a cell phone?
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
4/29/2014 | 2:37:40 PM
Re: Do you want self-driving cars on the road with you?
Wow, this is really moving from the realm of sci-fi to reality. Jeff Bezos's vision for drones today is where driverless cars were just two years ago: Will never happen. Perceptions change fast as the technology evolves.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Ninja
4/29/2014 | 11:20:25 AM
Re: Do you want self-driving cars on the road with you?
@Drew yes, it would be great for kids or even adults who are nervous about driving.
Drew Conry-Murray
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Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
4/29/2014 | 10:58:44 AM
Re: Do you want self-driving cars on the road with you?
I'm not interested in having a self-driving car, but I imagine my kids might like it. It would be an easy transition from being driven around by parents to being driven around by computer, leaving them free to read, text, space out, whatever.

Also, I could see self-driving cars being popular with older people who might not qualify for a license but still want to get out for Dr. visits, socializing, etc.
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Ninja
4/29/2014 | 9:39:04 AM
Re: Do you want self-driving cars on the road with you?
@SaneIT If that's the practice in your area, I'd think the town would want to put up those cameras -- guaranteed revenue! As for self-driving cars, I agree, they would likely be an improvement on many of the drivers currently on the road.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
4/29/2014 | 7:38:26 AM
Re: Do you want self-driving cars on the road with you?
Being in Central FL I'm laughing and cringing at the same time.  I remember when I first moved down here and someone freaked out because I moved as soon as the light turned green.  They were afraid that we were going to get hit because "everyone" runs red lights.  I've realized how true this is in some areas now and always give a look before crossing an intersection right after a light change.  I'm of the opinion that some people around here should be forced to buy a robot driven car because they don't belong on the road otherwise.  
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