State of the art of self-driving cars on road today (Google, Ford, and Toyota)

I’ve been a fan of autonomous cars so when Google announced today that they had actually built and tested a self-driving car, that was quite cool news. Read the New York Times article about the self-driving Google car done by John Markoff. That is pretty cool. Google, itself, talked about the technology in a blog post.

Turns out I actually caught one of these cars driving on Freeway 280 in January, reports Techcrunch and, back in 2007, I interviewed one of the guys, Mike Montemerlo, who now works on the Google Car (it’s a fascinating interview, great look into an innovative mind and where he was going with this technology). I wondered why the Google guys braked suddenly to avoid my video camera. I had a feeling they were testing something secret, but couldn’t figure out what from just looking at the car from the outside.

But, did you know there are cars on the road today that get close to driving themselves? I own one of those, a 2010 Toyota Prius. In my car there’s radar that senses the road ahead and a camera that looks at lane markings. I filmed a video to show how it works. It even works on curvy roads. Now Google’s car goes a lot further because it has digital images and 3D maps of the road ahead and even more sensors and algorithms that let it even drive through intersections.

Check this video out:

Toyota isn’t the only one using assisted driving technlogies, either. Back in January I interviewed the head of safety at Ford, who showed me what its system does and how it can sense cars ahead on the road and help drivers avoid accidents.

A lot of people are afraid of these technologies, but already they have helped me avoid accidents. They can see cars ahead of you at night even if they don’t have their lights on. I’ve encountered that several times, very dangerous if they are driving slowly and you’re going faster. Also, if my car senses that it is about to get in an accident, it tugs on the seatbelts and pre-fires the brakes, which makes them ultra sensitive so that I can get more braking in before an accident (you really must watch the Ford interviews to understand how important that is).

To me, these technologies will save lives and let you do other things while driving. Maybe someday it’ll be legal to text and drive — but only if you have a self-driving car.

I’d pay a lot of money for an even better system. This would greatly improve my life — in just the 15 months since getting the Toyota I’ve put 26,000 miles on it. At 55 miles per hour that’s 472 hours of driving. I use my car’s computer more than my TV or nearly any other computer in my life. I’d be willing to spend $1,000 to $3,000 per year to make that experience better (the assisted driving technologies in my Toyota came as part of a $6,000 package, which includes better headlights, better audio system, self-parking tech, and the assisted cruise control, among other things).

That’s the business model behind these things. The trick is, can Google find a way to make them cheap enough?

I won’t buy a car without them now (our new Sienna minivan has the radar-assisted cruise control as well).

One thing. I don’t think we’ll see truly autonomous cars, like the Google ones, for quite some while. Why? Legal questions of responsibility. Plus, the Google car can’t drive on my street (it hasn’t been captured with a Google Mapping car yet) and just imagine that there’s a bug in the map, or something, that causes a driver to get killed.

I believe this is why my car will only gently nudge me back into the lane if I drift out of the lane. It requires the driver to stay fully engaged in the process of driving, even though it is assisting the driver. The legal questions of letting a driver go to sleep while a car is moving down the road are just too great for 2010. I bet these legal questions will take a decade to answer. But they will be answered. I’m fully certain that my sons will be driving fully automated cars and that makes me quite happy. The computers inside are safer than most adults.

Oh, and as for the Google self-driving car? I actually caught it twice. Once with my iPhone:

And once with my Canon 5D MKII. Notice this time they noticed me shooting and stepped sharply on the brakes so I couldn’t take good video of the inside. (You can switch to 1080p high def video on this one, to get a good look).

Update: I interviewed the guy, Mike Montemerlo, who works on the team that built the Google car. That was back in 2007 when he was doing his research at Stanford. That interview is very fascinating because it gives you a real look into one of the the innovative minds behind this technology.

About Robert Scoble

As Startup Liaison for Rackspace, the Open Cloud Computing Company, I travel the world with Rocky Barbanica looking for what's happening on the bleeding edge of technology and report that here.

21 thoughts on “State of the art of self-driving cars on road today (Google, Ford, and Toyota)

  1. Will the insurance companies give the owners of self driving vehicles a break or charge them more for using those options? I believe the attorneys are the ones that are preventing the widespread use of self driving cars.

  2. Amazing how far technology has come in support of couch potatoes… next step may be automated walking to your car? #BTT Actually, there are many solid long term benefits if all cars are so equipped, such as higher road capacities and safer journeys.

  3. Audi had this inciden at Pikes Peak with a helicopter while testing their automated car a while ago, remember? Anyway, the car itself drives at full rallying speed al the way up to the peak by itself!

  4. By the way, while everyone is discussing Google’s great efforts, a team of the University of Braunschweig, Germany, conducted a similar experiment the other day. Here is a short video (a news report on German TV): http://www.tagesschau.de/inland/geisterauto100.html – “In Braunschweig, a computer-driven car participated in normal traffic today. Unlike earlier experiments, the computer was also responsible for navigation and choosing the best route. …”

    And the team’s website: http://stadtpilot.tu-bs.de/en/ (not very informative, unfortunately).

  5. Euro NCAP (the European Safety Association which, if I am not wrong, is the equivalent of NHTSA) just launched a new reward system for advanced safety technologies. In this way they are trying to push car manufacturers to develop more technologies and make them available even on lower cost cars. Also, it’s a good independent evaluation where customers can take a look before buying a car. Also, I saw Audi A4 comes with a similar system like in your Prius. Saw it works well on the highway but not sure about the corners. Here’s a link to the Euro NCAP Advanced to check the other advanced technologies they rewarded this year http://www.euroncap.com/rewards.aspx

  6. If ICON Aircraft implement the self-driving / autopilot system in their machines, also the Google Maps and Navigation, it will be the next Google’s future. And don’t forget Google Voice command, automatically.
    Combined all of the Google service systems will be great, but will it be real?

    Or as the Google founders want to do is prevent the traffic accidents, Lexus have a different idea. It has been developing an advanced driving simulator, to learn on almost any aspects of driving a car. Google really need to develop it either.

    But how much it’ll cost?
    Now, it’s time for waiting.

  7. i think the similarity here is hardly a coincidence.
    check this out:
    http://www.pbs.org/saf/1502/segments/1502-1.htm
    “Ten years ago, in one of the first stories Alan reported for Frontiers, he sat behind the wheel of a van while the van — full of computers — drove itself along a German autobahn. In this episode, Alan returns to Germany to find out what happened to the research program originally intended to develop cars that would drive themselves. He finds the goal changed; DaimlerChrysler engineers now working on technology that will help the human driver by alerting him or her to potentially dangerous situations.

    in the episode, they explained that one reason for this change: legal difficulties.
    i guess we can reasonably assume a lot of assistive driving techs are derived from automated driving research.

    by the way i don’t think google’s result is a big break-through. see here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Driverless_car#Recent_projects

    google’s project is more like a refinement of DARPA Challenges.

    1. Yup, and if you watch the Ford video you’ll find another reason: customers don’t like automatic cars yet and don’t trust them. That will change slowly, but for now it’s better to work on assisted technologies.

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