Google robot-controlled car frees users to text

October 9th, 2010

No, this is not an article from The Onion, but Google is working on a computer-controlled car. Two articles for tomorrow’s New York Times describe a research project at Google on developing an autonomous vehicle. Here is a picture of the prototype.

Google autonomous vehicle

In the science science section, John Markoff has a story Google Cars Drive Themselves, in Traffic.

“Anyone driving the twists of Highway 1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles recently may have glimpsed a Toyota Prius with a curious funnel-like cylinder on the roof. Harder to notice was that the person at the wheel was not actually driving. A self-driving car developed and outfitted by Google, with device on roof, cruising along recently on Highway 101 in Mountain View, Calif. The car is a project of Google, which has been working in secret but in plain view 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.”

A companion article, also by Markoff, has some additional material, including this interesting note on the current approach.

“One main technique used by the Google team is known as SLAM, or simultaneous localization and mapping, which builds and updates a map of a vehicle’s surroundings while keeping the vehicle located within the map. To make a SLAM map, the car is first driven manually along a route while its sensors capture location, feature and obstacle data. Then a group of software engineers annotates the maps, making certain that road signs, crosswalks, street lights and unusual features are all embedded. The cars then drive autonomously over the mapped routes, recording changes as they occur and updating the map. The researchers said they were surprised to find how frequently the roads their robots drove on had changed.”

The project was the idea of Stanford computer science professor Sebastian Thrun who is also a Principal Engineer at Google, where he helped invent the Street View mapping service. Thrun has led the Stanford team that developed the Stanley robot car which won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge that was focused on developing autonomous vehicle technology.

It’s not clear what is the business case for this Google research project. But Google has the cash and the intellectual capital that might actually develop something in this space that can make money.

In a Google blog post from earlier today, What we’re driving at, Thrun gives one motivation.

“Larry and Sergey founded Google because they wanted to help solve really big problems using technology. And one of the big problems we’re working on today is car safety and efficiency. Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use.

So we have developed technology for cars that can drive themselves. Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research.”

update: Techcrunch has an article speculating on the possible business applications, World-Changing Awesome Aside, How Will The Self-Driving Google Car Make Money?.