In our last post we talked about debunking and busting some popular questions and myths surrounding self-driving cars using Google’s self-driving car as example. Now today we shall continue in our sequel.
Who built it?
As is typical of Google to begin important innovations from scratch to finish, Google has also designed the car from scratch, starting with the sensors and a frame to interconnect them, then adding a cabin that does not block any of the sensors or create blind spots and eventually the body shell. The manufacturing of the 100 or so prototype cars will be done by a firm in the Detroit area, but Google declined to comment on which.
How does it work?
The car works pretty much the same way as most self-driving electric cars like the Tesla products. Powered by an electric motor with around a 100 mile range, the car uses a combination of sensors and software to locate itself in the real world combined with highly accurate digital maps. A GPS is used, just like the satellite navigation systems in most cars, to get a rough location of the car, at which point radar, lasers and cameras take over to monitor the world around the car, 360-degrees. The software can recognise objects, people, cars, road marking, signs and traffic lights, obeying the rules of the road and allowing for multiple unpredictable hazards, including cyclists. It can even detect road works and safely navigate around them. The new prototype has more sensors fitted to it that can see further (up to 600 feet in all directions) and in greater detail than the ones available on the previous repurposed Lexus and Toyota vehicles.
How safe is it?
The new car is the next evolution of Google’s self-driving car. While the new frame is untested, the company’s previous versions have clocked up over 700,000 miles of testing on public roads, mainly around California, including over 1,000 miles of driving in the most complex situations and cities like San Francisco’s hills and busy streets. The car itself is limited to 25 mph, which restricts it to certain roads, but also minimises the kinetic energy it could carry into a crash if one should happen. The front of the car is also made to be as kind to pedestrians as possible with a foam bumper and a flexible windscreen that is designed to absorb energy from an impact with a person’s body. Seat belts are also provided – a safety requirement for vehicles on the road – while the car has redundant systems, a “fault-tolerant architecture” as Google calls it, for both steering and braking, should the primary systems fails; plus that emergency stop button that passengers can hit at any time. Google has also taken the data and behaviours it learned from its previous vehicles to create a defensive, considerate driving style that is meant to protect both the passengers and other road users. For instance, the car will wait a second after the traffic lights turn green before it moves off, although this could incur the anger of drivers stuck behind it. Google also says that making it drive in a natural and predictable way has been one of the key goals, so that it behaves in a familiar way on the road for other drivers.
What is the motivation?
Google says it has gone as far as it can with the current customised vehicles and that a new platform is needed to take the project and technology to the next step and closer to a product people can actually use. For instance, the previous generation Lexus vehicle had blind spots right up against the car where the sensors couldn’t see, something that needs to be eliminated in any vehicle open to the public. The cars will first be used to test the software driving the car and push its capabilities. Google says at some point, when it deems its software safe, it will start putting real people into the cars beyond Google engineers. It will use the cars in a similar manner to the company’s Google Glass explorer programme, analysing how people use them and what works and what doesn’t.
In our next and final sequel we shall mover to other relatively plausible issues that should be addressed.