Google Touts Big Advances in Self-Driving Cars

by Jeff Wiener on April 29, 2014

While we may have all heard just about enough of Google and its desire to control every facet of our existence, I can’t help but be intrigued by the company’s ongoing research into self-driving cars, as the company announced this week that it was made significant headway into not just how its robotic cars handle the relatively straightforward freeway driving, but how they navigate the complex maze of suburbia as well.

“We still have lots of problems to solve, including teaching the car to drive more streets in Mountain View before we tackle another town, but thousands of situations on city streets that would have stumped us two years ago can now be navigated autonomously,” said Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car project, in a blog post.

In fact, as Google’s accompanying YouTube video clip shows, the cars have been taught to recognize bicyclists signalling to move across traffic, railroad crossings, parked cars protruding into traffic, multiple pedestrians and cyclists, and orange traffic cones demarcating a construction site. I’ll admit, while Google’s self-driving cars may not yet be ready for the city streets, with driving skills like these they’re already better than the majority of the human motorists on the road.

As evidence of just how complex a task driving is (for humans and for robots), Google did acknowledge that its self-driving car project still has a long ways to go before we’ll see any such technology hit the consumer market, but implied that if done correctly Google’s new self-driving cars could have a major impact not only on road safety, but on the transportation industry as a whole (yet another ‘menial’ task Google’s robots of the future will usurp no doubt).

“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,” Urmson said. “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.” [italics mine]

There’s no question that Google has come under significant criticism regarding its self-driving vehicle project, perhaps for no other reason than most can’t figure out Google’s interest in the field or how it might plan to monetize this new technology. While there are some who speculate that self-driving cars will simply free up drivers for more screen time with Google products—hence more advertising revenues—I happen to think that Google, despite its plans for world domination, actually cares about something many in the tech world have forgotten, advancing technology into realms previously unexplored instead of simply tweaking what we already have.

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