No one ever said Google wasn’t driven. The search giant recently demonstrated cars that drive themselves using sophisticated artificial-intelligence software. In theory, these vehicles could eliminate accidents and speeding tickets, and the “driver” could watch a movie or catch up on work instead of driving.
There are obvious safety benefits to computer-controlled cars. The World Health Organization estimates more than 1.2 million lives are lost in traffic accidents each year, and Google believes it could cut that number by as much as half with its autonomous vehicles.
Google has deployed modified Toyota Prius vehicles with an array of tech tacked on. The cars are equipped with a position estimator, a rotating sensor on the roof (for generating a 3D map of the vehicle’s surroundings), a video camera near the rear-view mirror (for detecting traffic lights and moving obstacles), and four radar sensors (for determining the position of distant objects). Add in a GPS receiver and an inertial motion sensor, and it’s easy to see how Google’s seven test cars have logged more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human intervention—and 1,000 miles without any.
To be clear, Google hasn’t completely ceded the future to robots. Each Google car has a human driver in case something goes wrong. So far, the company has reported only a single accident—and it was because someone rear-ended the car.
“We’ve always been optimistic about technology’s ability to advance society, which is why we have pushed so hard to improve the capabilities of self-driving cars beyond where they are today,” wrote Sebastian Thrun, a Google software engineer, on Google’s official blog. “While this project is very much in the experimental stage, it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future thanks to advanced computer science.”