Google is driving head first into more controversy today after revealing it has been testing its innovative hands-free car technology on California’s roads.
For it wasn’t talking about keeping hands off the phone or the GPS – alarmingly, it was testing cars driven with hands off the steering wheel.
Road safety experts were raising questions about the robot-driven cars after Google revealed it has logged over 140,000 miles around the state – almost all of them on auto-pilot.
The specially adapted Toyota Prius automated cars drove from Google’s HQ in Mountain View, Northern California, down the famously scenic Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Monica.
They also drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and down San Francisco’s Lombard Street, one of the nation’s steepest and curviest roads.
The computer giant boasts that seven cars, which have funnel-like cylinders on the roof that acts as the vehicle’s ‘eye’, have driven 1,000 miles at a time without any hands-on human input.
Transport chiefs were said to be investigating the legalities of the robo-cars, but Google insists its lawyers are confident they are perfectly street legal.
Researchers claim the artificial intelligence technology could eventually halve the 1.2million lives lost every year on roads around the world.
The cars have a person in the driving seat ready to step in if there is a problem and a software engineer sits shotgun to take care of possible software hiccups.
They keep to the speed limit because the maximum for every road is included in it’s database.
So far, says Google, the trips have been almost accident free. The only hitch came when another – human-driven – car rear-ended one of the pilotless Priuses.
‘Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use,’ said Sebastian Thrun, the researcher in charge of the project.
‘Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic, as well as detailed maps which we collect using manually driven vehicles to navigate the road ahead.
Mr Thrun, 43, insisted the cars we’re not a danger to other motorists.
‘Safety has been our first priority in this project. Our cars are never unmanned. We always have a trained safety driver behind the wheel who can take over as easily as one disengages cruise control.
‘And we also have a trained software operator in the passenger seat to monitor the software.
‘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.
‘And we’ve briefed local police on our work.’
‘The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that people spend on average 52 minutes each working day commuting.
‘Imagine being able to spend that time more productively,’ he added on Google’s blog.
By David Gardner
Last updated at 11:11 AM on 11th October 2010
Source: The Daily Mail