SAN FRANCISCO — The world is one step closer to the day when people can, in good conscience, drive to work while sipping coffee, texting with a friend and working on a laptop computer.
On Friday, Google announced that sometime this summer several prototype versions of its self-driving cars are set to hit the streets of Mountain View, Calif., the search giant’s hometown. The move is still just another round of testing but it is a significant step toward a pilot program in which regular consumers could ride in self-driving cars.
Google has long been testing its self-driving car technology with a fleet of Lexus sport utility vehicles that have driven about a million miles on public roads, and that continue to put in 10,000 miles each week.
Traditional automakers are also pushing the envelope of driverless tech with on-the-road testing of their own autonomous prototypes, and the industry predicts that by 2020 those dreams could come true.
Getting there is now much more about software than hardware. The systems of radar, lasers and cameras currently used by Google and automakers have grown so sophisticated that the vehicles can easily monitor the road in all directions — even beyond what the eye can see. The tough part is figuring out what to do with all that information.
In essence, the cars need an electronic brain that knows how to drive in a world where human drivers, as well as pedestrians and bicyclists, often do unpredictable things.
They also need to understand regional differences. Drivers in Boston, for instance, often behave differently than those in Atlanta or Los Angeles, where unspoken rules of the road and cultural cues can vary.
City environments are particularly challenging, and require software with much more flexibility and power. That’s one of the reasons Google (and its rival, Apple) hope their software acumen can help them solve the puzzle. And now that Google will be testing its new bubble-shaped cars on public roads near its Mountain View headquarters, it’s getting one step closer to honing its predictive technology for urban settings.
Unlike the fleet of self-driving Lexuses that are already on the road, Google’s prototype, which looks like a golf cart with doors, is designed to be a fully autonomous car in which people get in, set their destination and relax as the car does the work. The prototypes cannot go faster than 25 miles per hour and, for now, have a steering wheel and pedals so that a “safety driver” could take over.
The steering wheel is a legal requirement, but Google’s plan is to take the driver out of driving completely.
Earlier this year, during a presentation at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Astro Teller, head of the Google X research division that created the self-driving car, said that in the fall of 2012 the company started allowing Google employees to take the Lexus version home and self-drive on the freeway, so long as they kept paying attention in the event of an emergency.
Despite this, the employees got used to self-driving and stopped paying attention.
“The assumption that humans can be a reliable backup for the system was a total fallacy,” Mr. Teller said in the presentation. “Once people trust the system, they trust it.” Google realized the best thing to do “was to make a car that has no steering wheel, that has no brake pedal, that has no acceleration pedal — that drives itself all the time, from point A to point B, at the push of a button.”
Of course, nothing is accident-proof. Earlier this week, Chris Urmson, director of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, disclosed that self-driving cars had been in 11 “minor accidents” in which there was only light damage and no injuries, and that “not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident.”
This included seven rear-end collisions, a couple of wrecks in which cars were sideswiped and one crash in which the self-driving car was hit by a driver who rolled through a stop sign.
The challenge of city driving is one reason driverless technology has first arrived on highways. In the coming months, Tesla Motors has promised to introduce an “autopilot” feature that can take over highway driving in certain conditions. Next year, other automakers will do the same, such as General Motors’ “Super Cruise,” which will allow hands-off-the-wheel, foot-off-the-pedals highway driving.
Parking is another area that is poised for an overhaul. Companies like Ford already offer cars that pull into parking spaces automatically. The French supplier Valeo, which works with multiple automakers, is now working on technology aimed at parking garages where you can pull up to a garage and get out, leaving your car to find an available space and park itself.
When you’re ready to leave, the car acts like a robotic valet as it unparks and meets you out front.