Google Blazes Trail in Search for Driverless Vehicles

Google’s top executives, Exec. Chairman Dr. Eric Schmidt (standing), Co-founder and CEO Larry Page (in driver’s seat) and Co-founder Sergey Brin with the Toyota Prius self-driving vehicle.

When Google was founded in 1996, no one could have predicted that 17 years later it would be the No. 1 entry for a Google search on driverless vehicles.

But that’s exactly what has happened as the search-engine giant is the leading user of driverless vehicles. It is doing it in partnership with Toyota and Audi and alongside virtually all other auto manufacturers, who are all racing to become the first to mass produce cars and trucks that drive themselves in safer ways than humans ever could.

Our main goal with self-driving cars is to transform mobility—to improve people’s lives by making driving safer, more enjoyable and more efficient, said Jay Nancarrow, manager of Google Global Communications and Public Affairs.

Interestingly, the only accident in which Google’s test cars were involved took place with a driver in control of the vehicle. Google attracted the world’s attention to its efforts when it posted a 2012 YouTube video of a legally blind man being taken on his daily errands in one of their self-driving vehicles. The video, which has been viewed nearly 4.5 million times in a little over a year, vividly illustrates how close driverless vehicles are to becoming a reality.

Google and others who are developing driverless technology all use a combination of GPS navigation systems, sensors and radar to make their systems work. Also, advancements are occurring daily while lawmakers work feverishly to keep up with development by creating legislation to control public road testing and ultimately consumer availability. Only three states have laws on their books allowing testing. Just two others, including Michigan, have bills in process or are considering legislation.

In addition, although driverless vehicles could be ready for public purchase within the next 10 to 20 years, manufacturer acceptance of the drastic changes that will need to take place to make these vehicles available to the public is a potential hurdle to overcome as well as the public’s wariness of price increases and potential privacy issues.

History dates back to 1939
One of the earliest depictions of the driverless car was displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair in the Norman Bel Gedes Futurama Exhibit sponsored by General Motors Corp. that showcased radio-controlled electric cars being driven autonomously through circuits embedded in the road.

Practical developments didn’t emerge until the 1980s when a Mercedes-Benz robotic van drove on the streets of Munich, achieving a top speed of 39 mph. In the United States, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) funded an initiative that resulted in a robotic vehicle achieving 19 mph during a 1980s on-road run. In 1987, the Hughes Research Laboratories demonstrated the first off-road autonomous vehicle.

The 1990s brought more sustainable demonstrations. In 1994, two Mercedes-Benz robot vehicles drove 690 miles at speeds up to 81 mph on a three-lane Paris highway. One year later, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class traveled 990 miles autonomously from Munich to Denmark.

A major demonstration in the United States took place in 1997 when 20 automated cars, trucks and busses successfully drove themselves along a road running parallel to the I-15 Freeway in San Diego through the efforts of the National Automated Highway System Consortium, a conglomerate consisting of the U.S. government and a handful of automakers, suppliers and universities.

Throughout the first 10 years of the 21st century, a number of other successful demonstrations were made. It culminating with the longest autonomous drive to date in 2010 when four driverless electric vans developed by The Artificial Vision and Intelligent Systems Laboratory (VisLab) of Parma University in Italy completed a 100-day, 9,900-mile journey from Parma to Shanghai, in what was to become the first intercontinental demonstration.

Also in 2010, GM introduced the Electric Networked Vehicle (ENV) concept, a two-seat, two-wheel urban electric car jointly developed with Segway Inc. GM-China is currently developing the second generation of this concept, the ENV2. The new GM concept is a four-wheel autonomous vehicle that is planned to be part of a demonstration fleet in Tianjin Eco-City, a 30-square-kilometer socially harmonious, environmentally friendly and resource-conserving city under development in China.

Although as of 2013, fully autonomous vehicles are not yet available to the public, many models have semi-autonomous features, including adaptive cruise control, lane assist and parking assist. Every year, more semi-autonomous vehicle features become available as manufacturers work toward full autonomy.

One of the most promising new semi-autonomous features under development is GM’s Supercruise, expected for introduction on Cadillac models by the end of the decade. Supercruise allows a vehicle to drive itself within painted highway lane markers while adjusting speed to maintain a safe distance between other vehicles through the use of GPS, radar and cameras.

The vehicle can take complete control and take you to your destination in comfort, safety and security, said Don Butler, Cadillac’s U.S. Marketing vice president. We can foresee the day when vehicles will be able to completely avoid collisions. I think it’s highly likely that before the end of this decade, we’ll be in driving modes that will be semi-autonomous.

Steering will be controlled by the vehicle. Speed will be controlled by the vehicle. Your direction will be controlled by the vehicle.

Safety cited as biggest benefit
When self-driving vehicles become a mass-produced reality, many significant benefits will be realized. These include improved safety, increased road and parking capacity, a decreased need for road signs and the ability for a whole new population of people to travel by automobile.

GM’s Electric Networked Vehicle is now in its second generation of development.

Far fewer traffic collisions are expected as a result of an autonomous system’s decreased reaction time compared with human drivers. In addition to saving lives and preventing injuries, this could greatly reduce the need for traffic police and insurance policies.

According to Paul Saffo, co-founder and managing director of Discern Analytics, a San Francisco-based management consulting firm, in the years to come it will seem inconceivable that people were ever allowed to drive cars in which they caused so much human carnage during their first 100 years on the road.

People will marvel at the thought that allowing fallible and easily distracted humans to steer several thousand pounds-worth of steel hurling along at 60 mph ever seemed like a sensible idea, said Saffo. Similarly, the deployment of autonomous vehicles will for the most part be welcomed by safety, insurance and policy players.

Google’s Nancarrow concurs. Over 1.2 million people are killed in traffic accidents worldwide every year, and we think self-driving technology can help significantly reduce that number, the Google spokesperson said. Self-driving cars never get sleepy or distracted, and their ability to make driving decisions 20 times per second helps them run smartly.

The most telling example of self-driving vehicle safety can be found in the fact that Google’s autonomous test fleet has only been involved in two accidents the first occurring when the vehicle was being driven manually by a person. The second took place when one of their cars was rear-ended by another car while sitting at a traffic light.

In addition to safety improvements, the smart vehicles’ improved reaction time should increase road capacity and travel time by requiring less space between vehicles, which will minimize pollution and maximize fuel efficiency.

Parking congestion could also become a thing of the past as vehicles may simply drop off passengers at their desired destination and then be programmed to drive to another location for use by another family member or friend.

Andrew Bergbaum, director, AlixPartners, cites pricing and manufacturer motivation as key issues to overcome.

A consumer in America uses his or her car for approximately one hour per day, said Andrew Bergbaum, director at AlixPartners, a Southfield-based global business advisory firm. There is, therefore, a large amount of ‘free capacity’ in the personal-vehicle use market. Imagine a world where you can be driven to work and where your car can then turn around and drive home so that your partner or anybody else can use it during the day.

Self-driving vehicles also have the possibility of providing individual transportation to people who previously could not drive by themselves. These new drivers could include younger, non-licensed teenagers, elderly individuals who have willingly or been forced to stop driving and people with disabilities whose ailments make it a physical impossibility to drive themselves. Obviously, in the early years of availability, this may not be possible as driving may need to be transferred back to a licensed driver if the system malfunctions. But as the technology becomes more robust and dependable, a new population of unlicensed single occupants is conceivable.

Technology & the Google effect
The technologies that are making all of these benefits possible include radar, sensors, lidar (laser/radar), GPS and computer vision which senses surroundings and uses control systems to analyze sensory information to guide the vehicle autonomously.

Although many advancements are made every day in the technology that makes self-driving vehicles possible, further technological advancements will be necessary to bring the self-driving vehicle to market, something Saffo believes will come at an extremely quick rate.

Today’s prototypes like the Google self-driving car work well enough, but consumer-ready vehicles will require vastly more intelligence and sensory awareness, said Saffo. This sounds daunting but is actually the easiest part, thanks to the magic of Moore’s law, which states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every 18 months. The autonomous vehicle of 2030 will have more computing power than the entire Pentagon and more sensory capacity than a galaxy of NASA satellites.

Google’s self-driving vehicle technologies that navigate public roads are mounted in the same location on all of its 10 Toyota Prius, Lexus RX450h and Audi TT test fleet to the tune of about $150,000 of equipment per vehicle. A $70,000, roof-mounted, 64-beam Velodyne lidar rotating sensor scans more than 200 feet in all directions to generate a precise three-dimensional map of the car’s surroundings. Meanwhile, a position-estimating sensor mounted on the left rear wheel measures small movements made by the car to accurately locate its position on the map.

In addition, a video camera mounted near the rear-view mirror detects traffic lights and helps the car’s on-board computers recognize moving obstacles like pedestrians and bicyclists. Finally, four standard automotive radar sensors three in front and one in the rear help determine the positions of distant objects. Google’s vehicles maintain posted speed limits based on information stored in on-board computers and allow a driver to assume manual control of the vehicle by applying the brake or turning the steering wheel.

The core technology that enables the car to drive itself involves interpreting data from a variety of on-board sensors (laser, radar, camera) as well as information these sensors have stored from previous drives while the car is being manually driven, explained Google’s Nancarrow.

Google’s Lexus RX450H self-driving vehicle drives autonomously on California roads.

Each Google test drive is conducted by one of 12 drivers with perfect driving records and one of the company’s engineers. More recently, Google has started conducting tests with a single occupant as the reliability of their system improves. The test drives have been performed in a number of notable locations with varied terrains including, San Francisco’s Lombard Street, the Golden Gate Bridge, Pacific Coast Highway and on roads which circle Lake Tahoe.

Trusting a self-driving car system is all about demonstrating reliability, and driving involves a huge number of potential scenarios that we need to handle appropriately, said Nancarrow. As a result, we’ve focused on doing heavy testing in a wide variety of circumstances. We’ve successfully driven over half a million miles in self-driving mode across a wide variety of terrain and road conditions, and we’re very pleased with the performance. We help our system learn as it goes, taking the insights from our drives and updating the software to improve the performance for our entire fleet.

One of Google’s most memorable test drives went viral when it was posted on YouTube ( on March 28, 2012. The video features legally blind Morgan Hill, Calif., resident Steve Mahan being driven autonomously in a self-driving Toyota Prius for lunch at a Taco Bell drive-thru restaurant, to pick up shirts from a local laundry and back home again.

It was a life-changing experience for Mahan who sees the public introduction of self-driving vehicles as an opportunity for a sense of independence he has never known.

Look Ma, no hands, no feet, no nothing, Mahan mused as he was shuttled from location to location. This is some of the best driving I’ve ever done. Where this would change my life is to give me the independence and the flexibility to go to the places I both want to go and need to go when I need to do those things.

In introducing the video on YouTube, Google wrote, We organized this test as a technical experiment, but we think it’s also a promising look at what autonomous technology may one day deliver if rigorous technology and safety standards can be met.

While it is too soon for marketing plans to be made, Google engineers and officials stay focused on testing for the time being. We haven’t determined exactly how or when we will get the technology into people’s hands, but we’re continuing to develop and refine the technology, particularly the reliability, said Nancarrow.

Legislation and marketability: The final frontier
While development and testing of autonomous vehicles continues at Google and other companies, lawmakers and legislative bodies are at various levels of readiness to accommodate testing on public roads and eventually commercial sales. Interestingly, technical feasibility and legislation, although necessary for commercialization, may not be the final determining factor whether self-driving vehicles make it into the marketplace. Automaker and consumer acceptance will be required to make them viable and there are a number of potential issues to work through before the cars of the future ever hit the road for good.

Google has been fortunate to have laws passed in their home state of California and nearby Nevada that allow them to test their vehicles on public roads. Only one other state, Florida, has a similar law. The remaining states either have bills pending, are discussing legislation or in some cases not yet considering putting laws in place.

Driving laws never anticipated cars that can drive themselves, said Nancarrow. Fortunately, a number of lawmakers have recognized the potential of this technology and are already getting a lot of work done to prepare proper frameworks for self-driving cars to operate legally and safely. As the technology develops further, there will undoubtedly be more discussion about how to best make these cars available to the public.

Michigan and Texas both have pending legislation to allow autonomous vehicle testing while a bill introduced in the Colorado state legislature was defeated in committee earlier this year. The Michigan law was proposed due to the urging of Gov. Rick Snyder. He challenged skeptical state legislators to vote in favor of allowing self-driving vehicle testing on public roads by asking, Aren’t we the automotive capital of the world?

Legally blind California resident Steve Mahan’s Toyota Prius self-driving vehicle pulls into a Taco Bell drive-thru.

In pro-active California, representatives from a number of state agencies motor vehicles, highway patrol, transportation and insurance meet on a regular basis to discuss future legislative needs for the implementation of self-driving vehicles with a goal to have more laws in place by the end of the year. For its part, Google recently hired a veteran traffic-safety official to manage its public policy initiatives and efforts to lobby for more legislation.

When technology and legislation are in place to pave the way for the introduction of the self-driving vehicles into the marketplace, two additional hurdles will have to be overcome to ultimately make them a wanted reality manufacturer and consumer acceptance.

Pricing is one of two key consumer issues that will have to be overcome. According to a recent J.D. Power and Associates survey of 17,400 vehicle owners, 37 percent said they would be interested in buying a fully autonomous car, a figure that dropped to 20 percent when respondents were told it would cost an additional $3,000. There is some historical evidence to support the potential for customer rejection toward the expected increased price.

Adaptive cruise control is prime example, said AlixPartners’ Bergbaum. The earliest technology was available in 1995, yet it is still expensive and far from being standard on most cars.

A second potential consumer stumbling block could come in the form of privacy issues according to John M. Simpson, a director at Consumer Watchdog, a nationally-recognized, California-based, non-profit consumer education and advocacy organization. Simpson believes that consumers should have the right to decide how much of that information is disclosed publicly.

You could be tracked in real time, Simpson said. Google would know where you were going, how fast you were going, when you stopped, how long you stopped where. Then the question is, ‘What are they going to do with that data?’

Manufacturer motivation is another issue entirely that could delay commercialization due to the potential for a reduction in car sales. Many of the car manufacturers and their suppliers are researching self-driving technology, but it is unclear why they would want to roll it out quickly, said Bergbaum. This could certainly negate the need to own a second car and the effects on car production volumes could be devastating.

Although it is fairly certain that current and future technologies will make self driving vehicles a sustainable reality in the not-too-distant future, lawmakers and the car buying public will be the ultimate decision makers on whether or not they will make it into the marketplace. Until then, the world’s drivers will need to keep their hands placed on the steering wheel, their feet planted on the pedals and their eyes fully focused on the road.