Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Driverless Car

I know what you are thinking, blasphemy! As a car enthusiast, I love getting behind the wheel of a car no matter if it is at a local autocross track, driving through the mountains of Colorado or simply going to the grocery store. I am not only passionate about cars but also technology that makes the world a better place.

I work for a company whose clientele are individuals with physical disabilities, but just like everyone else they have places to go and things they want to see. Is it fair to deny them the opportunity that we all take for granted? That is why when I heard about the Google driverless car I was so excited about all the possibilities.

The director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory/Co-inventor of Google Street view, Sebastian Thrun, is leading this project. The engineers at Google have been able to put its fleet of self-driving cars through 250,000 miles of testing and have suffered zero serious accidents... with the exception of a collision in which a human pilot took control and caused a five-car collision. In Google's fleet of cars there are a few different vehicles in testing such as Audi TT, Volkswagen Touareg, and a Volkswagen Passat wagon. The navigation system that drives the car proved its precision and safety by completing notoriously difficult drives through rush hour traffic in Washington D.C. as well as a trip down San Francisco's famed Lombard Street (Think it's easy? Check out this guy).

This leads me to a question I thought of immediately when first hearing about an autonomous car: what about the unexpected? The little kid running out from behind a parked car on a residential street to chase down a ball, Bambi prancing down a wooded street in Colorado. How would the vehicle react in split second decision situations? The published information thus far does not directly address these issues. At the end of the day though, this is a life changing technology. It feels almost selfish to bring up such a concern, especially since I saw one of Bambi's friends on the side of the road last weekend, victim of a crash caused by a fully sighted individual. Accidents do happen, even to the best of us. We often forget that the little things like commuting to work in the morning, which we take for granted all too often, are deep rooted desires and a freedom that before now were only dreams for so many. Below is a video of Steve Mahan, a legally blind California man who took a trip in one of Google’s self driving cars to the local Taco Bell and the cleaners. During the video Mr. Mahan states, "Where this would change my life is to give me the independence and the flexibility to go the places I both want to go and need to go when I need to do those things." I believe if we can bring this technology out of a developmental stage and into the marketplace the world will truly open up for people who lack the ability to drive themselves around.

So yes, the car enthusiast is enthralled by the continuous development of the driverless car system, but I thought of something else. What have we been doing since the creation of the car? We have raced it. Reason two for my continued enthusiasm for the driverless car system: the driverless car race. Below is a video of Google's Driverless Prius going through a set of cones that looks a lot like a weekend autocross track. Please be warned there is inappropriate language for younger viewers. 
This past weekend at the Virginia International Raceway, Google decided to take their driverless car to the track to map it out and see just how fast it could get around the track. There has been no lap times posted as of yet, but I would bet that the times will be comparable to an amateur’s lap time… especially if the car was programmed by the same guys who worked on the auto crossing Prius from the video. 
So to wrap this entry up, I think the future for these cars looks amazing. Not only can we give people at a disadvantage a second chance to run their errands, we are giving engineers another way to compete and discover the very limits on what is possible for robotics.

Research for this article came from:

Wikipedia -
Autoblog -
Autoblog -