(Nearly) Live at SXSW: Searching Google for the Driverless Car

Any discussion of driverless cars is likely punctuated by the question “When?” Chris Urmson is the director of driverless cars for the Google Self Driving Car Project, but the best he could do for an answer is between 3 and 30 years.

That may not be much help is you’re wondering whether you will be able to trade in your Toyota for a Google when the lease expires. But the point that Urmson was making during his presentation at SXSW Interactive is that this is a technology that will be rolled out incrementally over time. You might be able to catch a ride in a driverless car on a freeway in sunny, dry Arizona, before you can get one on a blustery winter day in Detroit.

What Urmson did offer up to his audience was a fascinating look at some of the technology behind the Google self-driving car. The cars do not use GPS. As all of us know who have been dropped off of a highway ramp into a stretch of desolateness while our GPS announces ‘you have arrived at your destination,’ GPS isn’t accurate enough if you don’t have a human driver. Instead the Googlemobiles use a combination of maps and sensors.  The car’s OS captures 1-1/2 million laser measurements per second. It can zoom in and see up to 200 meters. And it anticipates the actions of other cars on the road 10 times per second. That information can be used, for example, to identify signs that a car with its left turn signal on is really going to try to shoot a U-turn. The vehicles are also equipped with something called anomaly detection, which, Urmson pointed out, could identify if some folks are playing frogger with your car.

Google driverless cars have already racked up 1.4 million miles on public roads. They currently do 10,000 miles of road testing very week in addition to 3 million miles of simulation testing daily.

Urmson made a compelling case for the driverless car. “The technology can’t get into the world fast enough for safety reasons.” He recited the statistics of 38,000 fatalities on U.S. roads every year. Globally the number is 1.2 million.

There are other potentially important benefits for the self-driving vehicle. If provides convenient transportation for people who can’t drive due to vision impairment or illnesses. If aging folks might seem to be losing some of the sensory sharpness that enables safe driving, why not transistion them to a driverless model? It also might alleviate the amount of time you spend sitting in traffic, or at minimum it gives you the ability to do things while your robotic chauffeur sits in traffic. One of Urmson’s slides calculates that the amount of time Americans sit in traffic every day is equivalent to 162 lifetimes.

But getting back to that question about when you’ll be able to trade in your Toyota for a Google the answer is probably never. Google has no interest in making cars, according to Urmson. Its interest is in the technology and they would look to partners for the manufacturing. Nor is Google interested in producing technology components, such as automatic braking, for driver-operated cars. Their goal is the fully driverless car.

Here’s some good news. Arunson believes the technology will become “relatively inexpensive” and will be accessible to everyone. Guess the car companies will have to get us on the next generation entertainment systems that we can enjoy while we are robotically escorted from place to place.

Urmson’s presentation can be viewed on the SXSW Interactive Channel on YouTube or by clicking here.

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9 Responses to (Nearly) Live at SXSW: Searching Google for the Driverless Car

  1. Erica says:

    Glad to hear that technology will make it accessible for me to “drive” during my senior years. On the flip side, I’m a very safe driver, but I failed my driver’s test 2 times as a kid (I was a very nervous test taker.) Maybe future generations will be saved the angst since cars will be doing all the driving themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lenie5860 says:

    Ken, this is fascinating and something that has been in the news a lot lately. I’m not sure how comfortable I would be with a driverless car but I would be willing to give it a try as long as I had to way to take over if I needed to. Wonder if it will be ready here in wintry Ontario once I’m too old to drive anymore.


  3. Phoenicia says:

    Driverless cars – It would take me a while to come around to this idea. I would much prefer driving myself. Technology can fail as it has in the past. The number of times my satellite navigator has led me to a dead end. For this reason, I print a map and check my route before making my journey.


  4. Jason @ TheButlerJournal.com says:

    I see why some people would think driverless cars would be a good idea, but I’m not one of them. There is no way that the cars could be accident proof. Also who’s to say that someone couldn’t hack the car and make it drive somewhere it’s not supposed to.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for sharing Ken. I’d love to attend a SXSW Interactive event one day and take in the programs offered each year. I’m not quite on board with driverless cars because it means relying more on the technology than human instinct or judgement. When it comes to being on the road, I don’t want my vehicle to be responsible for my transportation experience. That being said, this topic is another impressive example of how far technology has come.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Kire says:

    Believe the technology will change everything, as long as it doesn’t change me. I’m driving. Google can call shotgun!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Steffen says:

    About 80% of people on the road, shouldn’t be. Unfortunately there is too much money to be made by so many industries that we will continue to put people behind the wheel who have no business being there. In that respect the cars are great for those people.
    That said, I think everyone reading this article has experienced technology around them failing. At home or work, computer, smartphone, TV something has stopped working. What happens when this technology fails on a major highway in a major city?


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