It might be hard to imagine a scenario where the blind could drive safely, where distractions on the road would not be an issue, and even where fuel consumption could be lowered by a computer-operated car which could stop and go more efficiently than a human driver – but Google’s autonomous driving technology could make all of that possible. Google has seven cars (six Priuses and one Audi TT) equipped with radars, lasers and access to a sophisticated database of road information, which have now amassed a combined 200,000 miles of on the road! To celebrate this milestone Google has released a video which introduces us to Steve Mahan, a man with 95% vision loss, as he runs errands in one of their “driverless” cars.
The video makes for pretty extraordinary viewing. The car’s steering wheel and pedals work independent of human intervention as the car navigates a pre-programmed route of winding roads, stop signs and a Taco Bell drive through. The video is both astonishing and moving, as Mahan explains the car’s potential to change his life, by enabling him to go to the places he both wants and needs to go, independently.
Google described the drive with Mahan as “a technical experiment” adding “we think it’s also a promising look at what autonomous technology may one day deliver if rigorous technology and safety standards can be met.” This is an important distinction to make, and the car has a manual override, initiated by turning the steering wheel or pushing on the brake. It’s a vital safety feature for a car which relies on computer systems which are known to be unreliable at times. And even that manual intervention may not have prevented one of the Google Self-Driving Cars from becoming involved in (or the cause of) an accident last year.
A technician sits in the passenger seat next to Mahan to monitor the car’s navigation system, which taps into “detailed maps to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain,” described Sebastian Thurn, Google’s distinguished Software Engineer.
This artificial intelligence software is the car’s most vital element, and could be the next big thing on Google’s ever expanding horizon. At a recent Business Week event, VP of local, maps and location services Marissa Mayer explained “A lot of people ask us what driverless cars have to do with Google, and the truth is, when you’re driving a car, you’re getting 400 different inputs,” Mayer said. “Figuring out the right input and integrating that into the appropriate driving behavior is just a search problem and just a way of integrating an answer.” This intuition could be applied to “a different kind of search that’s more futuristically oriented for a person… to predict and suggest” answers before a question has even been asked. If it can pass Google’s Spooky Sniff Test, that is.
Images Screen Grab from Youtube Video “Self-Driving Car Test: Steve Mahan” by Google