Google’s autonomous cars make progress but still need improvement

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Will cars that drive themselves lead to a future of safer roads, or create even more hazards?

Since 2009, Google has been working on their autonomous car project, which aims to create fully self-driving cars that can travel on normal roads without requiring user intervention.

While these cars could potentially prevent accidents by keeping better track of their environment and thinking faster than humans, there are still questions of whether or not they’ll be able to adapt as well as a human can in different scenarios.

Google explains that their car works by using a variety of sensors to detect objects around it and classifying them by size, shape and movement pattern.

The car uses both map and sensor information to determine its position on the road at a given time. It uses software to predict possible movements of the objects around it such as pedestrians or other vehicles and then determines its own upcoming speed and trajectory based on this data.

According to Engadget on March 11, Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self driving car program, sent a letter to the Department of Transportation outlining the process of bringing autonomous driving technology to the public.

Google is pushing for the creation of a permitting system where auto manufacturers that can show they meet federal safety standards can petition regulators for permission to sell their cars.

On Feb. 14, Google’s car had its first significant traffic incident, hitting a bus while driving in autonomous mode. According to the California DMV accident report, Google’s car was a Lexus model with a test driver present though, it was driving autonomously. It signaled to make a right turn and moved to the right side of a lane to pass traffic.

It ran into an issue due to sand bags placed around a storm drain, which blocked its path. Google’s car moved back toward the center of the lane to pass the sand bags, while a public transit bus came up from behind.

The car’s test driver saw the bus but expected it to stop or slow to allow the car through. Google’s car hit the side of the bus while moving a 2 mph while the bus itself was going 15 mph. The car suffered some damage to its body, wheel and sensors though no injuries were reported.

According to Wired, Google originally predicted their cars to be road-ready by 2020. Chris Urmson has said Google’s goal is to make a car that drives better than humans can.

“You need to be very thoughtful in doing this,” Urmson said, “but you don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good …We need to make sure we can get that out in the world in a timely fashion.”

In a recent speech at South-by-Southwest in Austin Texas, Urmson explained that it may actually take as long as 30 years for self driving cars to become available. According to Spectrum IEEE, Urmson suggested that early commercial versions may be limited to specific geographies and weather conditions since they function better in sunny weather and wide open roads.

“If you read the papers you see maybe it’s three years, maybe it’s thirty years,” Urmson said. “And I am here to tell you that honestly it’s a bit of both.”