Google provided an unusual surprise on Saturday as it revealed that it's testing fully automated robot cars. The modified Toyota Priuses and lone Audi TT are significantly more advanced even than the DARPA Challenges cars and use a combination of video cameras, radar and laser sensors to find both the road and other vehicles on the road. Test cars have driven over 140,000 miles of real traffic, going distances as far as San Francisco to Los Angeles where earlier robots have only driven short distances.
Distinguished Software Engineer Sebastian Thrun stressed that the cars were safe as they knew details about the route in the advance: a regular car maps out the route and road conditions to give the automated car a sense of what to expect. The cars can nonetheless adapt to fast-moving traffic and other unexpected situations. Every robotic car has so far had a human in the passenger seat who could monitor the tests and override the artificial intelligence if it goes wrong. Police already know the tests are taking place, Thrun added.
The project is unusual for Google but is positioned as creating "highway trains" that could cut the number of traffic deaths in half. Robots both have much faster reflexes than humans and have a complete, always-on awareness that humans lack, the search firm noted. The move could not only reduce the number of avoidable accidents but improve fuel efficiency and free drivers to use the 52-minute average commute time for better purposes.
The self-driving cars are considered experimental and won't yet lead to production cars, but Google hopes it will lead to practical cars.