Google to unveil driverless cars
Internet firm tests cars that drive themselves on busy California roads with occasional human control.
Last Modified: 10 Oct 2010 17:42 GMT
A Google car has even driven through the steep and curvy Lombard Street in San Francisco [GALLO/GETTY]

Google is planning to introduce driverless cars in an ambitious project that has already seen the cars secretly driving through busy California roads, clocking a total of 1,000 miles without any human intervention.

The California-based company said on its website the cars have done more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control.

According to an official Google blogpost by Sebastian Thrun, the company's software engineer, one car even successfully negotiated San Farncisco's Lombard Street, one of the steepest and curviest street in the US.

But Thrun believes that the self-driving cars are still about eight years away from mass production.

The technology developed by Google enables the automated cars to drive themselves using video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to "see" other traffic, as well as detailed maps.

Self-driving cars have been around for over four decades, but a breakthrough came in 2004 when they were tested in a series of Grand Challenge events organised by the US government.

Following the failure of the first contest, a Stanford team led by Thrun built the car that won a race against a vehicle built by a Carnegie Mellon University team. And within two years, another such event showed that self-driving vehicles can successfully negotiate busy urban roads.

The 'google edge'

Google's street view data gives it an edge with photographs of every street in the US, UK, Ireland and many major world cities, enabling the cars to plan their routes by seeing junctions, roads well in advance, according to data from the company.

Safety has been of prime concern for Google in this robotics research experiment hence all such vehicles
have been manned by a trained safety driver as well as a trained software operator.

According to Google engineers, only one such car has been involved in an accident to date when a Google car was hit by another car from the back while stopped at a traffic light.

Technologists believe that autonomous cars will change the way cars are used in everyday life, allowing drivers to be more productive by doing other things during the time they would have conventionally spent driving their vehicle.

The cars are also likely to be built lighter thus consuming less fuel and will be eco-friendly.

Through this initiative, Google is hopeful that this technology will help decrease the number of road accidents by 50%.

According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1.2 million people lose their lives every year in road traffic accidents.

The cars can be programmed from "cautious" to "aggressive" personality types.

What lies ahead?

This project is a clear indication of how Google wants to transcend all boundaries and be more than just a search engine.

But Google does not yet have a business plan for the driverless vehicles and hopes it might profit from selling technology and navigation systems to autonomous vehicle manufacturers - just like its android technology that it sold to mobile phone companies.

The only major hindrance in introducing this piece of robotics to everyday life are the legal issues around computer-controlled cars.

It is not clear who would be held responsible in case of an accident - the person behind the steering wheel or the software developer?

Experts say that the software is likely to be more accurate as unlike a human, it will not be sleep deprived, in a hurry or just plain careless.

Al Jazeera
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