Driverless in California

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Google’s autonomous cars take on busy streets

A Google driverless car navigates a street in Mountain View, California.— Photo: AP
A Google driverless car navigates a street in Mountain View, California.— Photo: AP

Google says its self-driving cars are motoring along freeways comfortably, albeit with a driver ready to take control. But city driving with its obstacle course of stray walkers, bicyclists and blind corners has been a far greater challenge.

In a blog entry posted Monday, the project’s leader said test cars now can handle thousands of urban situations that would have stumped them a year or two ago. “We’re growing more optimistic that we’re heading toward an achievable goal a vehicle that operates fully without human intervention,” project director Chris Urmson wrote.

The company has said its goal is to get the technology to the public by 2017. In initial iterations, human drivers would be expected to take control if the computer fails. The promise is that, eventually, there would be no need for a driver.

The basics already are in place. Google’s task is perfecting technology strapped onto its fleet of about two dozen Lexus RX450H SUVs.

Sensors including radar and lasers create 3D maps of a self-driving car’s surroundings in real time, while Google’s software sorts objects into four categories — moving vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists and static things such as signs and curbs.

Initially, those plots were fairly crude. A gaggle of pedestrians on a street corner registered as a single person. Now, the technology can distinguish individuals, according to Google spokeswoman Courtney Hohne, as well as solve other riddles such as construction zones and the likely movements of people riding bicycles.

“A mile of city driving is much more complex than a mile of freeway driving, with hundreds of different objects moving according to different rules of the road in a small area,” Urmson wrote. — AP



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