No, that’s not a Google Street View Prius being piloted down the 101. The roof-top device is Lidar, part of the sensors that allow it to drive by itself. Perhaps out of a desire to solve a problem they helped create (texting, mobile web use, etc.), Google has come ever closer to perfecting autonomous cars. NY Times reports that Google has a fleet of seven cars plying the highways and streets of California, with paid “sitters” behind the wheel to confirm that everything is ok, as well as to conform with CA law.The cars have driven up to 1,000 miles without any human intervention, even down twisting Lombard Street, and have racked up 140k total driver-less miles. The only incident so far was someone rear ending one of the Priuses at a red light. All we need now is for judges to mandate them for lousy drivers.
A further development of the DARPA technology that Google’s Sebastian Thur and his Stanford Team won in 2005, the current system is moving ever closer to perfection. Ironically, the biggest hurdle left for the intelligent Prius is to properly read hand signals that a traffic cop or crossing guard might make. here’s an example of the subtlety that the system responds to:
For me, the tour de force of the new car came when the vehicle halted at a stop sign to make a right turn. It waited patiently for a vehicle in front of it to turn, then inched forward. A car was approaching from the left, but the Prius pulled into the far right lane, and I realized that it “knew” the other car was not in our lane even though it was passing close to us. There was no need to hit the red button.
The red button is one of three ways to engage human override, the other two being to touch the brakes or manually turn the steering wheel.
It’s not clear yet exactly what Google intends to do with the system to commercialize it. The biggest obstacle is legal: the law is way behind the technology, and no states have yet addressed the issue, requiring humans to drive cars. And then of course there’s the legal issue of who’s at fault if an accident does happen. In this country, that may take a while to sort out, but it sounds like it’s just the ticket for China. The huge potential benefit is to allow a doubling of traffic density, when the autonomous vehicles communicate effectively.