Beth Kelly's picture

Testing the First True Driverless Google Car Prototype

How Google tests self-driving cars: first Lexus and soon cars that it will start from scratch.

Although many people are lauding the disruptive elements that Tesla Motors' electric vehicles bring to the auto industry, there's another project in the works that could eclipse Tesla in its impact on the way we drive. Google has been quietly developing its driverless vehicles for a few years now, and it's almost ready to begin testing its latest model on public roads. The Google team had previously driven converted Lexus vehicles on public roads, but this summer, the search giant will test models that it has built from scratch.

The car works thusly - an electric vehicle, it uses a LIDAR system and video cameras to gather information about its surroundings. Because this technology uses laser beams, it can maintain an accurate view of the immediate vicinity even around corners, through obstacles and in conditions of poor visibility. Using the information obtained in combination with its driving experience and programming, the vehicle adjusts to road conditions automatically. There's absolutely no need for human intervention.

During previous rounds of testing, there have only been 12 accidents after a combined 1.7 million miles of driving. A Google spokesperson asserted that none of the accidents were serious, and there were no injuries and only minor damage. Chris Urmson, the head of Google's self-driving car project, maintained in an online post that “not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident.” Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, has also explained that the company’s goal cannot be perfection - human drivers are, after all, still the primary occupants of our roadways. As the technology continues to advance and autonomous vehicles enter the mainstream we will likely see even further improvement in the Google car’s safety record.

The vehicles, though they are still in the development phase, have the potential to help motorists save significant sums of money while staying safer to boot. They're programmed to obey all traffic rules and laws, so “reckless driving” could be almost completely eliminated. And of course, drunk driving by those in autonomous cars would be nearly impossible. Because of its aptitude for preventing auto-related accidents, insurance premiums would be reduced considerably. Additionally, the cars are a force within the “green” movement. Autonomous vehicles, with their lightweight, aerodynamic build and capacity to maximize fuel efficiency, offer a variety of eco-driven improvements. In a situation in which “electricity is the driver”, smart, self driving cars will engage with the electrical grid rather than burn fossil fuels. As a result, alternative American and Canadian energy providers will also come to play a much greater role in shaping the future of greener power.

The combination of operational changes made possible by self-driving cars and the subsequent structural changes that will arise from their widespread use has the potential to create a lasting and meaningful impact on energy markets as well as the environment.

The driverless project has aroused considerable interest among movers and shakers in industry. Rumors abound that Apple is working on its own similar program. Tesla's Elon Musk has leaked his support of the competing tech giant’s interest in entering car-making field, no doubt to improve competition within the “alternative” vehicle market. BMW's U.S. President of Engineering Tom Baloga has been quoted making reference to “The Jetsons” and stating that drivers would prefer to operate their own cars manually except perhaps when dealing with gridlocked traffic conditions. Audi, on the other hand, is taking inspiration from cutting-edge advancements and plans to introduce its own autonomous car by 2017. Even Uber is throwing its hat into the ring.

Ordinary motorists who have been given a chance to ride in one of Google's driverless automobiles report that the experience is anticlimactic, even boring. The cars are programmed to act defensively and drive more slowly than many human motorists would, so there's no high-speed excitement or fast-paced maneuvering. But as regular people get a chance to become familiar with these vehicles, we can expect them, after initial concerns fade, to accept the almost drone-like devices as a routine and normal part of life.

Once cars that drive themselves become available to a mass market, we'll probably see smoother traffic flows as human error is slowly removed from the equation. At the same time, the vehicles will most likely integrate into the “Internet of Things”, allowing people to hail a cab remotely using their smartphones or use the cars as couriers to deliver important packages across town without needing a human to babysit them. The automotive industry is certainly in for revolutionary changes in the coming decades as driverless technologies step into the forefront.

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