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Google Secretly Tests Autonomous Cars In Traffic 561

Posted by timothy
from the just-having-a-bit-of-fun-yer-honor dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Autonomous cars are years from mass production, but technologists who have long dreamed of them believe that they can transform society as profoundly as the Internet has. Now the NY Times reports that Google has been working in secret on vehicles that can drive themselves, using artificial-intelligence software that can sense anything near the car and mimic the decisions made by a human driver. With someone behind the wheel to take control if something went awry and a technician in the passenger seat to monitor the navigation system, seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control. One even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, one of the steepest and curviest streets in the nation. The only accident, engineers said, was when one Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light." Update: 10/09 22:37 GMT by T : Reader harrymcc points out that the dream of self-driving cars is nothing new: "Both Popular Science and Popular Mechanics have regularly reported on such experiments; I rounded up some examples dating as far back as 1933."
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Google Secretly Tests Autonomous Cars In Traffic

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  • The Official Blog (Score:5, Informative)

    by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn@nOspAM.gmail.com> on Saturday October 09, 2010 @06:29PM (#33847952) Journal
    Here's the official blog announcement [blogspot.com] since I didn't see it in the summary or article.
  • Rules of the Road (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cosm (1072588) <thecosm3NO@SPAMgmail.com> on Saturday October 09, 2010 @06:30PM (#33847956)
    I guarantee they will use their turn signals better that wet-bodies.
    • by Nerdfest (867930)
      I read TFS and the first thing I thought was that mimicking human decisions is a silly idea. It's probably just the summary, not what they're actually doing. i do see some value in the AI determining likely reactions of other drivers though.
      • by cosm (1072588) <thecosm3NO@SPAMgmail.com> on Saturday October 09, 2010 @06:47PM (#33848080)
        1. Automated cars
        2. Bad human drivers

        if (rearCarDriver == human)
        {
        BrakeCheck();
        }

        3. Profit! Thanks state-laws-always-faulting-driver-in-rear!
        • Re:Rules of the Road (Score:5, Informative)

          by ChipMonk (711367) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @08:03PM (#33848596) Journal
          Except where state laws also prohibit driving in such a way as to cause a wreck, deliberately. Even if your vehicle is not involved in the impact, if your driving can be shown to have contributed to a wreck in which someone died, you can be charged with murder.
          • by dkf (304284) <donal.k.fellows@manchester.ac.uk> on Sunday October 10, 2010 @12:21AM (#33849898) Homepage

            Except where state laws also prohibit driving in such a way as to cause a wreck, deliberately. Even if your vehicle is not involved in the impact, if your driving can be shown to have contributed to a wreck in which someone died, you can be charged with murder.

            If you're driving like a dick and cause an accident then it makes sense to charge you, whatever your position relative to the impact. It's entirely possible to be at fault even if your car is not actually in the crash, e.g., if you're switching lanes across a freeway in a crazy way in heavy traffic that causes others to stamp on their brakes.

            Rule 1 of driving: don't be a dick.

  • even if initially only on highways.

    The ability to read, or surf the web, or watch a movie/TV show durring my commute would be wonderful. Almost like getting a free hour everyday. 52 * 5 * 1 = 250 free hours a year.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I have to say that I like the idea of a car driving itself. In theory it should be able to be better than any human. However, software is what I do for a living and it seems there are always circumstances that can not be predicted if software but would be easy for a human to handle. It's those situations that I would be paranoid about if the car was driving itself. The problem would be that even if the human could intervene there is no guarantee that you could intervene fast enough or if the system woul

      • I think a lot of it is trust and acceptance. I would be willing to start small.

        Imagine if the leftmost highway lane was designed "auto drive lane". This would greatly simplify the potential scenarios. Vehicle would only auto drive when in the auto drive lane.

      • by hedwards (940851)
        Considering that virtually all crashes that involve vehicles are the result of human error and are in predictable situations, I think that it's probably safer in the long term to have computers do all the driving with just an emergency override.

        Or even more or less remove the override in favor of a single "push this if you're about to drive off a cliff" button.
        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Depends on the driver, it's certainly true for most drivers but not all of them. Of course most drivers also overestimate their driving abilities.

          There is no way current technology can make this work. Consider how many things could be coming at your car from the periphery that the system would not be able to detect. Animals running across the road, snow and mud slides, road alligators being flipped up from the car in front of you, etc. There is no way a computer could accurately detect these things comi

          • by mysidia (191772) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @07:41PM (#33848446)

            There is no way current technology can make this work. Consider how many things could be coming at your car from the periphery that the system would not be able to detect. Animals running across the road, snow and mud slides, road alligators being flipped up from the car in front of you, etc.

            Consider how many things could be coming at your car from the periphery that the human eye would not be able to detect. Computer systems can have more sensors with longer range. Computers can track more objects coming from more directions than the human eye can track simultaneously.

            There is no way a computer could accurately detect these things coming from a far distance on an intercept course with you.

            Of course they could. It's just a matter of having the right (expensive) sensors on board with sufficient range.

            There are even types of sensors such as radar that can detect objects a much larger distance, and infrared sensors that can detect objects (such as children) much smaller than the human eye can, or objects such as child pedestrians that are obscured by a parked car.

            The computer can track and predict the object that would not even be visible to your eye, and anticipate the child outside your field of vision about to try and run across the street in front of you.

            The human eye is a pretty good, versatile sensor, with a wide range of things it can pick up, but it has limited range (especially if the driver is nearsighted and only has the minimal 20/40 vision required to get their license), and you only have two of them.

            For example... you can look to the front, to the side, or behind you, but not in both places at the same time.

            This matters, for example, if you are changing lanes.

            You can look behind you and to your side to verify clearance, meanwhile, while you glanced behind you for that second, a car in front of you has slammed on their breaks, or a vehicle turning onto the highway has turned in front of you or changed lanes in front of you within 50 feet, and the time you have to make a decision and react was drastically reduced.

      • by ATMAvatar (648864) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @08:34PM (#33848770) Journal

        I have to say that I like the idea of a car driving itself. In theory it should be able to be better than any human. However, software is what I do for a living and it seems there are always circumstances that can not be predicted if software but would be easy for a human to handle.

        The part of me that is a programmer agrees with you. The part of me that is a driver and a road cyclist must concede that the bar has been set ridiculously low for the car AI to drive better than the average human.

      • by wootest (694923) on Sunday October 10, 2010 @07:08AM (#33850982)

        The composition of the driving logic is the most important part. It can't be a big switch case. It has to be a bunch of interconnecting heuristics, constantly looking for every sign of trouble, being able to figure out context and priority of every such signal and also failing gracefully.

        There are also tough tradeoffs: It's obvious that if someone's running out in front of the car, you can't go even if the light just turned green, but if a small animal ran out in front of the car, you're doing 110 km/h, every lane is packed and you're on a bridge, you're probably best off actually continuing. It becomes an equation with a thousand terms, solved continuously.

    • by Fallingcow (213461) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @06:41PM (#33848026) Homepage

      It'd be awesome not to need a DD (or risk a DUI) to go to the bar in the many US cities with no or inadequate public transit... though I bet the MADD assholes will lobby to make it still illegal, somehow, and probably try to force a breathalyzer to turn the damn auto-drive on in the first place.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by vux984 (928602)

      The ability to read, or surf the web, or watch a movie/TV show durring my commute would be wonderful. Almost like getting a free hour everyday. 52 * 5 * 1 = 250 free hours a year.

      You mean fill out reports and attend conference calls. :(

      In too many situations if we have more time to work, we'd just work more. Capitalism rewards productivity... if you can be more productive than your competition you have an advantage.

      This is why we don't have the effortless 1-hour work days envisioned in the "Jetsons". The pr

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Gamma747 (1438537)
        If your job can be done from your car, then it can also be done from your home.
    • by iluvcapra (782887)

      If only urban areas would offer some sort of futuristic transit "system" whereby instead of burning 30 man-miles per gallon we were able to aggregate daily short and medium intra-city hops into "platoons" on single road vehicles or rail vehicles, that would leave the rider free to do work while a designated operator took care of the driving for them. Even BETTER is there was some sort of inter-city rail-type service that offered faster hops than any freeway without having to negotiate traffic.

      But seriously

    • The ability to read, or surf the web, or watch a movie/TV show durring my commute would be wonderful. Almost like getting a free hour everyday. 52 * 5 * 1 = 250 free hours a year.

      Taking your comment a few steps further...

      It's staggering how many hours of potentially productive time are wasted in traffic every day. Think of if this way: you hit a traffic jam heading to work in the morning. Even if it takes only 15 extra minutes of your time, you multiply that by the hundreds or thousands of people who are stuck like you, times some average hourly wage, and the potential worth of that time that was instead wasted is huge. The ability for a car to drive itself and for you to spend the

      • by Sarten-X (1102295) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @07:19PM (#33848300) Homepage

        A widely-available car that even properly follows laws would also save, collectively, many hours per day of everybody's time, even among those who don't drive it.

        A few seconds here because an intersection wasn't blocked... A few seconds there because a turn signal allowed some advance planning... Another few seconds because lane merges were done earlier than the last possible moment...

        Here's to the future, and hoping it comes soon!

    • by gmuslera (3436)
      Add the ability to actually answer the phone or read/send SMS. In fact, as all of that is in phones that could run Android, integration there could be interesting.
  • by Fallingcow (213461) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @06:31PM (#33847962) Homepage

    Cities will have to step up drug enforcement big time to make up for budget shortfalls, if these become common. No more traffic tickets means dramatically lower revenue for many towns.

    • by Jeng (926980)

      It would be made up for by the significant lack of accidents. One would hope.

    • by zmollusc (763634) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @07:00PM (#33848184)

      Nah, imagine a street with a 40mph limit and a steady stream of robocars doing 39.99999mph. Just set up some roadworks and a temporary 20mph limit for 'safety'. $Ker-ching, $Ker-ching, $Ker-ching, $Ker-ching, $Ker-ching.

  • i hate driving. it is drudgery, it is monotonous, it is awful

    i want to get in my car, point out a location on the gps, and fall asleep in the driver's seat. everything else is well within our technological abilities to make happen automatically

    10 years, at the most car manufacturers, please

  • Wow, just add cameras to roof, and automatic, no driving required, Google Street View mapper.

    You can add guns and sell them to the budget-strapped police departments, add water hose and you wouldn't get a house burning down with firemen just watching it.

    Introducing Google Cop, model 209...

    • by netsharc (195805)

      Of course I DNRTFA before commenting, but this interested me:

      Any test begins by sending out a driver in a conventionally driven car to map the route and road conditions. By mapping features like lane markers and traffic signs, the software in the car becomes familiar with the environment and its characteristics in advance.

      It's kinda lame that Google's solution to hard problems like how to get a computer to drive a car, is basically replaying a recording of how a human drove on that exact piece of road. So w

      • by Jahava (946858)

        Of course I DNRTFA before commenting, but this interested me:

        Any test begins by sending out a driver in a conventionally driven car to map the route and road conditions. By mapping features like lane markers and traffic signs, the software in the car becomes familiar with the environment and its characteristics in advance.

        It's kinda lame that Google's solution to hard problems like how to get a computer to drive a car, is basically replaying a recording of how a human drove on that exact piece of road. So what if some things are changed, or the software gets thrown onto an unknown road? A human will still be able to cope, but this software?

        Not a recording of how a human drove; rather, they sent someone to map the area (record lane sizes, lights, crosswalks, traffic hazards, stop signs, speed limits, etc.) for the software. The software still drove the car; it just used its knowledge of the static environment to assist it in making the decisions. It can focus more on reacting to reality (by mapping it as a deformed version of that static image) rather than trying to visually recognize and read speed limit signs etc.

        In a future where this sort

  • What does it do around bad drivers? What about pedestrians? What about people crossing the road unexpectedly?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by vandoravp (709954)
      Same thing humans do, watch out for them and react. Except, unlike humans, autonomous cars aren't so distractible and can react much more quickly. Also, if networked, the cars can be warned of hazards by another car well before actually encountering it.
  • by Cylix (55374) * on Saturday October 09, 2010 @06:42PM (#33848032) Homepage Journal

    The reason Google was collecting wireless data was for the simple necessity of controlling it's autonomous fleet of vehicles. Eventually, these drones will sweep the nation day and night using the plethora of open access points around the nation. Our own ineptness will be our downfall as the machines eventually become self aware. Sure, it was all for marketing and advertising to earn a few dollars, but I just can't live in a future they are creating. Yes, I am talking about autonomous sales droids that watch you day and night while analyzing your garbage. They will be on the front door to pitch you a customer tailored vacuum cleaner the moment you try to escape your home. It's a truely dark future that lies in the waiting.

  • OK, can we have an article that isn't behind a login/paywall?

  • They've had this for years [wikipedia.org]
  • by DougF (1117261) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @06:51PM (#33848104)
    They studied 6 drivers "with spotless records" behind the wheel. I would argue that they could gain valuable information by also studying poor drivers and teaching the program to a) avoid such behavior in it's own driving; and b) learn how to react to poor drivers out there on the road (e.g. passing on blind corners, turning without signaling, aggressive/NASCAR type diving into limited spaces, etc)
  • Google has deep pockets so if some one sues they can just pay a settlement and not take it to court.

  • by cosm (1072588) <thecosm3NO@SPAMgmail.com> on Saturday October 09, 2010 @06:59PM (#33848166)
    Will it pick up hitchhikers?
    Will it courteously let people pull out who have been waiting?
    Will it flick-off people who drive 30 under?
    Will it flick-off people who drive 30 over?
    Will it flicker brights to warn of speed traps?
    Will it pull over for emergency vehicles?
    Will it draft large semis?
    Will it bring me hookers and blackjack?

    Also, who receives the citation in the event of a stop?
    • by webmistressrachel (903577) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @07:46PM (#33848474) Journal

      This is a not-so-official Google reply - "It will do no evil".

      -- Will it pick up hitchhikers?
      This is an option available in the comprehensive Android for Cars(TM) Options screen. It is set "Off" by default for passenger safety.

      -- Will it courteously let people pull out who have been waiting?
      Using a variation on BitTorrent P2P technology, Android for Cars(TM) will auto-negotiate with other Car-OSs (including Windows 9 for Cars and Linux) priorities based on waiting time and resultant collective fuel efficiency to assign priorities.

      -- Will it flick-off people who drive 30 under?

      Android for Cars(TM) will predict the path and speed of all non-AI traffic based on it's currert course and the layout of terrain ahead. It will likely overtake and ignore most slower traffic, unless there is a risk in doing so.

      -- Will it flick-off people who drive 30 over?

      Android for Cars(TM) will predict the path and speed of all non-AI traffic based on it's currert course and the layout of terrain ahead. It will likely ignore and allow faster traffic to pass, unless there is compensation to be had. See "Legal Destruction of Road Traffic" in the Reference Manual.

      -- Will it flicker brights to warn of speed traps?

      Android for Cars(TM) complies with all National and State Laws regarding speeding and speed control. Google ourselves have a "Do No Evil" policy. For both these reasons, Android for Cars(TM) will ignore speed traps and law enforcement and meatbag's reactions to them.

      -- Will it pull over for emergency vehicles?

      Android for Cars(TM) incorporates two systems which will effectively provide for this situation. First, faster moving traffic is given priority anyway, and emergency vehicles running Android for Emergency Vehicles(TM) can signal direct commands to your vehicle.

      -- Will it draft large semis?

      Google failed to understand your question. Please retype or rephrase you enquire. Back to Google Android for Cars(TM) Home.

      -- Will it bring me hookers and blackjack?

      Google Android for Cars(TM) can and will run in completely automated mode, completing assigned journeys efficiently. However, identification of such subjective things as "Hookers" and "Blackjack" will require an independent Bending Unit, a supplementary control system, available seperately from Mom's Friendly Robot Company.

      -- Also, who receives the citation in the event of a stop?

      As legal "Owner" and "Operator" of the car, you do. This is why we provide full source...

      Rachel x

  • by noidentity (188756) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @07:00PM (#33848180)
    The Streetnet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes on-line August 4th, 2017. Human decisions are removed from traffic management. Streetnet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the charging plug.
  • by realisticradical (969181) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @07:09PM (#33848240) Homepage
    I can't wait until you can buy different models of cars that have different quality self-driving systems. "Buy BMW we only crash 5% of the time."

    Unfortunately I'll still be stuck with the low end Toyotas which crash 80% of the time.

  • So your car will be able to drive itself but doesn't Lexus have a patent on cars that parallel park themselves? Is this going to be a problem? Your car can do everything except park...
  • by Dachannien (617929) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @07:24PM (#33848340)

    Companies that might otherwise be interested in bringing autonomous vehicles to the masses will be scared off by the huge monetary risks involved. Any autonomous vehicle involved in a deadly accident will result in a massive lawsuit against the manufacturer, even if the accident was someone else's fault, and even if the manufacturer admonishes the owner to monitor the vehicle's performance at all times while it's in operation. What's more, juries will distrust the "correctness" of autonomous vehicle controllers, to the point that manufacturers will lose lawsuits even when there's no real evidence that the vehicle was to blame.

  • Think of the jobs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by WrongMonkey (1027334) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @07:26PM (#33848350)
    I don't mean to be a Luddite, but if this works out, do you know what it will do to the economy? Tens of millions of jobs are based almost exclusively on driving. Truckers, cab drivers, even pizza delivery. A computer can work 24/7, so even if the system costs $100,000, that's still saves money over paying for employees.
    • by cduffy (652) <charles+slashdot@dyfis.net> on Saturday October 09, 2010 @07:40PM (#33848442)

      I don't mean to be a Luddite, but if this works out, do you know what it will do to the economy? Tens of millions of jobs are based almost exclusively on driving.

      It'll improve the economy by removing a large "tax" on everything that requires transportation (that is, almost everything) and freeing up the labor pool for more productive uses? By your argument we should be making self-service gas stations illegal as a job creation program. And maybe outlawing wireless meter reading systems -- those cost jobs too!

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by arkenian (1560563)

        I don't mean to be a Luddite, but if this works out, do you know what it will do to the economy? Tens of millions of jobs are based almost exclusively on driving.

        It'll improve the economy by removing a large "tax" on everything that requires transportation (that is, almost everything) and freeing up the labor pool for more productive uses? By your argument we should be making self-service gas stations illegal as a job creation program. And maybe outlawing wireless meter reading systems -- those cost jobs too!

        You laugh, but I have never observed a self-serve gas station in New Jersey....

      • by im_thatoneguy (819432) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @09:39PM (#33849108)

        So what you're saying is that a lot of unemployed people won't have enough money to spend on less expensive goods. I'm sure they'll take comfort in knowing all the things they can't afford are cheaper than they used to be.

        This is the problem with free market thinking. Yes, the GDP will improve. Prices will drop. Efficiency will go up. But even if all of our prices drop by 50% at the expense of 50% unemployment only a select few in the current economy can benefit from those reduced prices. Without income it doesn't matter what something costs--you can't afford it. On the brighter side you can cut the food stamps you're giving them since the grocery prices are reduced.

        The rich get richer and the poor still have nothing.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by KingOfBLASH (620432)
      I don't really think we can be handcuffed for future technology because of people it might disrupt

      Nobody stopped making cars because livery owners (people who rent out and care for horses) would lose their livelihood. Nobody stopped making electric lights because candle makers go out of business. Nobody stopped building computers because it would put all the accounting clerks out of business (people paid to add and subtract for businesses)

      The fact of that matter is this wouldn't happen overnight.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by selven (1556643)

      And all those salaries would go into the pockets of the public, which would then provide the same number of new jobs because they now have more money to spend.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broken_window_fallacy [wikipedia.org]

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      You are, by definition, a Luddite.

      You know what part of the economy was wreaked by cars?
      The Horse and cart business. The horse breeders, riders and the cart wheel manufacturing jobs were decimated.

      Oh, they all got different jobs? Well who would have though that a human is flexible.
  • Profoundly? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Vyse of Arcadia (1220278) on Saturday October 09, 2010 @07:36PM (#33848412)
    I doubt transportation that requires little human intervention will have as profound an effect as something that has revolutionized the way information is distributed. It's like saying automatic transmission had as profound an effect as the invention of the printing press (or radio, or television.) There is no comparison.
  • by alispguru (72689) <bane&gst,com> on Saturday October 09, 2010 @07:53PM (#33848514) Journal

    ... long-haul trucking. A robo-truck could drive 24-7, stopping only for fuel and loading/unloading, and would never have an accident due to driver drowsiness or speeding to meet a deadline.

    If a robo-driver costs, say, $100,000, it would pay for itself in a few years in avoided driver pay alone.

  • Skynet (Score:4, Funny)

    by dokebi (624663) on Sunday October 10, 2010 @02:45AM (#33850348)
    I think it's suspicious that I keep trying to tag the story skynet, and it (the machine) refuses.
  • TU Braunschweig (Score:4, Informative)

    by Kensai7 (1005287) on Sunday October 10, 2010 @05:26AM (#33850720)

    Why nobody is talking about TU Braunschweig's efforts [engadget.com] in this matter? Hell, we even have a video from them, drop Google's "secretly".

  • by Builder (103701) on Sunday October 10, 2010 @06:27AM (#33850906)

    In London recently, there was a case where an automated train skipped something like 6 red signals and caused passenger trains to have to stop and wait until someone could get control back.

    This is a train, that goes on rails and can't get into too much trouble. There are limited variables to deal with, and we can't get it right yet. I don't even want to think about doing this with cars in populated areas!

Programmers do it bit by bit.

Working...