2017 – Year Zero for Google’s driverless cars?

The year is 2017 and the world’s press is gathered around a garage forecourt somewhere near San Francisco to witness an event that will change the face of motoring forever as the first consumer model driverless car takes to the street.
Sounds far-fetched, but science fiction is rapidly becoming science fact as Google’s driverless cars continue to rack up the accident-free miles. And Google is so confident in its technology that the tech giant has now set itself the goal of delivering the first driverless car to the public in just three years’ time. And here’s why…

Clocking up the miles

Google currently has a fleet of over 20 Lexus RX450H SUVs, each of which is kitted out with laser and radar sensor technology that creates real-time 3D maps of its surroundings to enable the car to navigate its way around. The on-board computer then sorts all the surrounding objects into one of four categories: moving vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists and static objects, such as curbs, street signs, parked cars and buildings. When the cars first took to the streets they couldn’t determine between a group of pedestrians and a single person – which must have been confusing as the group split up – but now not only can the cars distinguish individuals, it can also recognise things like construction zones and the movements of cyclists, notably the hand signals used to turn. The cars can also read stop signs, including those used by school crossing guards – lollipop men and women to you and me. And Google claims that after covering over 700,000 accident free miles, its cars have mastered motorway driving and now just have to figure out the finer points of city driving – something quite a few human drivers can’t seem to get the hang of, even after years of practice!

The key to the city

While Google cars know when to stop and start, the real challenge for its engineers is to make the cars understand driver gestures (the mind boggles) and driving in limited visibility such as rain or fog. Another obstacle to overcome is that the cars are programmed to drive defensively. This means that, should a Google car turn up at a four-way junction, it cannot work out who has right of way and so will let the other cars edge out ahead of it. Just wait until they come to the UK and have to deal with thousands of roundabouts! One final hurdle it must overcome is a legislative one as not all US states have laws in place to allow driverless cars on their streets. It is a problem that is well on the way to being addressed, though, as California’s Department of Motor Vehicles is in the process of writing regulations to implement a law on driverless cars, while the states of Florida, Michigan, Nevada and Washington DC have also enacted driverless car laws. So how will the technology manifest itself? Although Google has the financial clout to manufacture its own vehicles, it’s unlikely the tech giant will go down that road and will instead collaborate with major car makers, as it did with other tech companies when launching its Android operating system. So would you be comfortable travelling in a driverless car? Do you think the day will come when all cars are driven by computers? Let us know in the box below…

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