Google's Self-Driving Car Gets Its License

November 2012

So I'm driving down the street, and the woman coming from the opposite direction stops her car right in the middle of the street. I slow down, unsure what she's going to do. And as I pass her I see that she's attending to some very important business: getting out her cell phone, dialing a number, and starting a conversation as she resumes driving.

What this woman needs is a car that drives itself. And according to Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, she'll have exactly that within five years: a self-driving car from Google. Their prototype cars have now logged over 300,000 miles — and not a single accident. They're now licensed to drive in three states: Nevada, Florida, and California.

But you won't see a driverless car zipping down the road. The states that approved these cars still require a licensed driver to be in the driver's seat. At any one time there are over a dozen of Google's cars on the road being tested.

Experts agree that it's not a matter of if, but when.

For one thing, self-driving cars are better at it than I am. Human error is implicated in 93% of all car accidents. According to some figures I've seen, those 55 and older have on average 1.5 accidents per 100,000 miles driven, or 4.5 per 300,000 compared to Google's zero. First computers bested us at chess, then Jeopardy, and now driving.

So no need to worry about texting while driving, or snoozing at the wheel. In fact, you could plan your trip to travel at night and sleep while your car takes you to your destination. This would also be a boon to truckers, and it would help to relieve the congestion on the roadways by shifting some traffic to nighttime.

Of course, Google is imagining that you'll be using your smartphone or tablet or other connected device while your car is driving, and thereby increasing the use of their services. Their pitch is that driving time is time that could be used productively.

That, however, will likely only be the first step. As Google and the auto manufacturers work on prototypes, they imagine that cars might not even need a person in them. Have to pick up the kids at school? Send the car to get them. Need to share a car with your spouse? The car drives hubby to work and then heads back home to be available for his spouse to drive to her job. A car that's in a parking lot is a car that's being wasted.

Need to get some groceries? Order them online, then send your car to the drive-up service area to pick them up. Had your driver's license taken away because of alcohol issues? No problem. I can just see it: "Yes, officer, you did take my driver's license away last month. No officer, I wasn't driving my car just now. It was driving itself."

Think, too, of the elderly or disabled who have had to give up driving. Now they'll be able to be self-sufficient again.

The vision goes further. Self-driving cars can be built to automatically communicate with traffic control devices. Computers monitor the flow of traffic, and make adjustments. According to the New York Times, this could allow for tighter packing of vehicles and make use of the roadways more efficient and help relieve congestion and delays.

What if the computer fails? Brin says that's an issue we're already constantly coping with in daily life. Airplanes, for example, are utterly dependent on computer systems. This situation won't be any different.

A writer for Wired magazine describes cruising down the highway at 70 mph, the car using its many sensors to analyze its environment 20 times a second. It moves slightly to the left when going past a bus, recognizing the bus is taking up more space in the adjacent lane. It slows slightly when it realizes it's in the blind spot of a car in an adjacent lane 30 feet ahead. It can even handle the more challenging tasks of driving, such as merging into traffic on California freeways.

Google's car gets information about its environment from video cameras (which can understand traffic lights and see traffic lanes), from radar sensors, a GPS system, and from LIDAR, a rooftop device that has 64 lasers emitting pulses of light that give the vehicle a 360-degree view.

That's a lot of hardware, but if it enables the aforementioned woman to make a call without stopping her car in the middle of the street, it's worth it.

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© 2012 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen