Google’s search for driverless car serves up SUV that goes it alone

Google says it has turned a corner in its pursuit of a car that can drive itself. The leader of the technology giant’s driverless car project has written in a blog that test vehicles are becoming far more adept at city driving.

Google’s search for driverless car serves up SUV that goes it alone

They can already comfortably handle motorways, he said, but city driving presents a virtual obstacle course of pedestrians, cyclists and blind corners.

Google says the cars can now negotiate thousands of urban situations that would have stumped them a year or two ago.

To navigate and avoid crashes, Google’s fleet of retrofitted Lexus SUVs rely on sensors such as lasers and radar. A driver is ready to take over if needed. Google has said it wants to get the technology to the public by 2017.

“We’re growing more optimistic that we’re heading toward an achievable goal — a vehicle that operates fully without human intervention,” said project director Chris Urmson.

His post was the company’s first official update since 2012 on progress towards a driverless car, a project within the company’s secretive Google X lab.

In initial versions, 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. Passengers could read, daydream, work, or even sleep while the car drives.

Google maintains that computers will one day drive far more safely than humans, and part of the company’s pitch is that robot cars can substantially reduce traffic fatalities.

The basics already are in place. The task for Google and traditional car firms, which are also testing driverless cars, is perfecting the technology.

Sensors 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 objects such as signs, kerbs, and parked cars.

Initially, those plots were fairly crude. A group of pedestrians on a street corner registered as a single person, for example.

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.

To deal with cyclists, engineers initially programmed the software to look for hand gestures that indicate an upcoming turn. Then they realised that most cyclists do not use standard gestures and others weave down a road the wrong way.

So engineers have taught the software based on thousands of encounters during the approximately 10,000 miles the cars have driven autonomously on city streets, Ms Hohne said.

The software projects a cyclist’s likely movements and plots the car’s path accordingly.

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