Google is now serious: the company is now test-driving the concept of driverless cars in Nevada. The vehicle has worked so far without any problems in demonstration drives, reports John Dyer. The technology's investor hopes that these vehicles will one day solve traffic problems.
Internet search giant Google plans to test its new driverless car in a spot that reflects how the project is a gamble: Las Vegas. The Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV, gave Google its first licence to test the cars, the first issued in the United States. The state legislature had enacted legislation in 2011 to allow the license to be issued, but officials only recently finalised rules for the tests.
International car companies want to get onboard
The cars use artificial intelligence, global positioning systems and multiple laser radar sensors on the roof and around the car's body to detect pedestrian, bicyclists and other cars and navigate on busy streets. "It's still a work in progress", said Nevada DMV spokesman Tom Jacobs. "The system regulates the brakes, accelerator and steering."
Google plans to test a fleet of eight cars: six hybrid Toyota Priuses, an Audi TT and a Lexus RX450h, the Las Vegas Sun reported. The California-based company didn't comment on the license to the press, but reports said it plans to eventually market the car to auto manufacturers.
BMW, Volkswagen, and Audi are also developing prototype autonomous cars. General Motors recently announced it is developing a Cadillac whose cruise control settings will make it nearly autonomous. GM has said its new car, the Super Cruise, might be ready by 2015.
"Google has a lot of competition," said Jacobs.
The driver can still take control
Florida and Hawaii are also reportedly considering drafting regulations to allow for autonomous vehicle testing.
Last year, the Nevada legislature enacted the first regulations ever for test-driving driverless cars. The regulations require a person to remain behind the car's wheel as well as someone in the car's passenger seat who can monitor the car's computer operating systems while it's driving. If the person in the driver's seat taps the break, the car's autonomous functioning cases and the researcher can take control of the car, reports said.
Google had to explain where and when it planned to test the cars, its contingency plans in case of trouble, which employees would operate the cars and other details related to the testing. The company also had to put up a bond in case the cars resulted in an accident.
The company plans to test the cars in Las Vegas and Carson City, the state capitol. Google researchers have already taken the vehicle for rides along the Pacific Coast Highway as well as over San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and around Lake Tahoe, a vacation area on the California-Nevada border. So far, the cars have travelled more than 1,610 km without human intervention and more than 225,300 km miles with drivers only stepping in periodically to make steering adjustments.
This could one day solve traffic problems
The license plates issued for the cars by the DMV have a red background and feature an infinity symbol. Private owners of the cars will get a green license plate with the symbol. Those owners will also need to obtain a special driver's license before they can ride in their driverless cars.
"I felt using the infinity symbol was the best way to represent the car of the future," said DMV Director Bruce Breslow in a statement. "The unique red plate will be easily recognised by the public and law enforcement and will be used only for licensed autonomous test vehicles."
Stanford University Professor Sebastian Thrun, a computer scientist, first developed the technology Google is using for its car as part of a competition hosted by the U.S. Department of Defense. Thrun has often said driverless cars could promote vehicle sharing that would dramatically cut down on traffic congestion in the US. Customers could join an association that keeps cars and use them only when they need them, simply ordering a car that then drives itself to their front door when they need it.
Such commercial applications of driverless cars have spawned a cottage car industry in Silicon Valley. Mercedes and Volkswagen have research labs in the area. IBM is developing an electric car batter there. And electric car firm Tesla is using a former GM-Toyota joint venture manufacturing plant in nearby Fremont, California.
With all the interest in solving our mobility problems and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cars, it looks as though Google may just be onto something.
Cover photo: www.milieudefensie.nl
Text photo: Frauenhofer Institute