Google’s New Robot Car Raises Hopes, Reality Will Dash Them Soon

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Google's fleet of robot cars have logged 140,000 miles on its own. Awesome, but we are not ready.

Google shocked the world this weekend by announcing that not only was it developing robot car technology, but that its fleet of autonomous cars had already racked up 140,000 miles driving experience. As described in the New York Times, seven converted Toyota Prius' use laser range finders, cameras, radar, inertial sensors, and high-detail maps to autonomously drive while humans sit behind the wheel and monitor software. While robotic cars have made leaps forward in the past decade, spurred on by DARPA's Grand Challenge competition, Google's accomplishment stands heads and shoulders above the rest. The search engine giant's announcement has fueled enthusiasm across the blogosphere for the technology, and many are hoping for the first time that robot cars could be nearer than we think. They will be disappointed. Google's venture into autonomous cars may be an epic win, but automotive regulation and government bureaucracy will raise a wall of fails in the future. Video of the Google car is available below. Celebrate the success while you can - the technology may be getting better, but society is not prepared to use it.

Google did many things very right in developing their autonomous car program. Foremost was the gathering of some of the most brilliant minds in robotic driving, as tested by DARPA's Grand Challenge. Sebastian Thrun, head of the project, was one of the leads in the Stanford Racing Team when it won DARPA's challenge. He also headed Google's StreetView project. Before Chris Urmson was 'on leave' from Carnegie Mellon to work for Google, he developed the autonomous vehicles that brought the university victory at the Grand Challenge. Michael Montermerlo (who got his PhD in robotics from Carnegie) was the software lead for Stanford's racing team. Anthony Levandowski made news a few years ago by developing PriBot, a Toyota Prius that drove itself through San Francisco. He also worked on autonomous motorcycles at UC Berkeley. Google's current robot car seems like a next generation version of PriBot. All in all, Google had just 15 engineers in their robot car project, but they chose the best. That's why a stealth project could be developed and quickly outperform so many other robotic car endeavors. Brilliant strategy, no doubt about it. You can see Urmson behind the wheel in the Google robotic Prius in the video from NY Times below.

Robert Scoble, aka Scobleizer, actually caught the Google car on video back in January, but didn't know what it was at the time.

The Google car looks great, and it's performed well, but it's likely many years from reaching the masses. From the NY Times:

The self-driving car initiative is an example of Google’s willingness to gamble on technology that may not pay off for years, Dr. Thrun said. Even the most optimistic predictions put the deployment of the technology more than eight years away.

It will simply be a matter of time before autonomous cars have the range of capabilities needed to replace human drivers. Yes, the Google fleet drove down Lombard Street's curves, it handled the wind on the Golden Gate Bridge, and it dared the cliffs of the Pacific Coast Highway. Yet it hasn't shown that it can defend itself around drunk drivers, dodge children dashing into the street, or notice that the bicyclist next to the road is signaling to cross into its lane. Human drivers face these problems all the time, even if they regularly make mistakes (1.2 million lives lost each year according to the World Health Organization). Google's system currently relies on a lead car making detailed maps of the route ahead of the autonomous car's passing. Robot vehicles still need semi-controlled situations to succeed. Years will pass before the controls needed are whittled down to match the variety of scenarios human drivers face all around the world every day. Even then, such systems will need to be tested and retested, made much more reliable than the computers we use (and crash) on our desktops today.

But let's look ahead to that time, maybe a decade from now maybe much less, when robot vehicles can perform as well as humans. Already, we've seen how the Stanford team is developing a system that can race up Pike's Peak. When robots can defeat rally car drivers the world will be suitably impressed. I'm sure there will be many exhibitions on NASCAR and Formula tracks everywhere highlighting their skill. It won't matter much. Even once the robots are ready to drive in real world situations, I still think it will take many more years before we actually see automated cars on the road.

For all that was done right, Google did one major thing wrong - they approached the robot car like it was only a technology challenge. It's not. It's also a social-legal one. Those 1.2 million people who lose their lives to car accidents each year mostly have other humans to blame. Drivers are held accountable for the machines they control. Who is accountable for an autonomous vehicle? The Google project had manned test drives, and various means for the human to quickly grab control. Not because the car was making mistakes. It never caused a single accident, though it was rear-ended by a human driver. No, the Google robot cars needed to be manned because California state law, not to mention our sense of scientific ethics, demands a human be responsible for a potentially lethal activity.

When robots are ready to drive for us, there will still be accidents. Much fewer, one hopes, but millions in damages and thousands of lives lost all the same. Who will answer for that loss? The company that designs the robot's software, the car manufacturer who installed it, or the driver who believed that they didn't need to pay attention because their car was driving itself?

Toyota just spent millions repairing and recalling cars that occasionally had sticking accelerator pedals. They face ongoing lawsuits, and are likely to be confronted by more, blaming them for collisions. That's just a single instance of a faulty piece of automotive technology. When human drivers cannot control their cars, the manufacturers face enormous legal consequences. When then will we want to pursue a vehicle that takes away the responsibility of driving from humans? No one could face the legal burden, no matter how safe their autonomous cars could be.

That doesn't mean that robotic cars will never arrive. I just think they'll appear in small steps. More stealth, less hype. Already we have systems in place that make driving easier, while never removing humans from the equation. Think about the automated systems already in your car: automatic transmissions, airbags, and anti-lock brakes. We're adding more all the time. Vehicles have camera systems surrounding their cars to help with parking and to avoid collisions (Google uses commercial versions in their robot car). Some new cars automatically engage the brakes if they detect a slowing or stopped object ahead, and more companies will be adding these accident avoidance systems in the future. Technologies that 'enhance' the human driver, or 'increase safety' help sell cars, and edge us close to autonomy. The goal is to get people to be safer drivers, to provide automated systems to aid us when we're about to make a mistake, not to take over the responsibility of driving completely. 100% autonomous vehicles are a legal nightmare...but 50%, 75%? That could be done, maybe sooner than we think, and with happy results. It doesn't take a fully robotic car to save thousands of lives each year.

If I were to predict how Google's autonomous car project would really affect our lives, I would point to all the possible applications it could enable that don't involve the dream of robotic vehicles. Advanced laser range finding and radar sensors can be integrated into modern cars to help with anti-collision braking controls, or to create a warning system for drivers. Highly detailed maps could change the way we drive. Google's Prius has a voice announce when you approach a crosswalk, or near a turn. Imagine a GPS guidance system that gave you 100% accurate help, and warned you of complex dangers like children that play nearby. There are many different ways in which the Google autonomous car projects could help us drive better.

...and yes, one of those ways will be, eventually, the adoption of fully robotic cars. I do believe that 100% autonomous vehicles will arrive, it will simply take longer than we think. Cars will become more and more helpful, removing more and more of the risks of driving, until automated systems are standard safety features for driving. From there we will make the leap to robotic cars. But there will be legal battles, social mores will have to be changed, and it's likely to bankrupt at least one major car manufacturer in the process. Years after the robots are ready to drive, we'll be ready to let them. For now we can applaud Google, and go back to our normal lives. Autonomous driving is not near.

[image credit: NYTimes / Ramin Rahimian]

[sources: Google Blog, NY Times]

Discussion — 46 Responses

  • Cybermancer October 12, 2010 on 2:23 am

    I agree with most points mentioned in the article. It’s an amazing accomplishment – and there are more to follow in the near future for sure – but it’ll be a while until we simply jump into our “cars” and tell them where we want to go, leaving the driving completely to the vehicle itself.

    Nevertheless, it’s still quite fascinating what’s already possible today…

  • Jeremy October 12, 2010 on 3:04 am

    I don’t think it would be quite that long before this could be used. I did some resaerch, the car HAS shown that it would be much better then a human in a crash scenario.

  • Dominant 7 October 12, 2010 on 3:17 am

    Then your gonna get hackers controlling cars…….

  • Keith Curtis October 12, 2010 on 3:25 am

    Another problem is that Google’s code is all proprietary. There is only a small team at Google working on driverless cars, so the progress by definition will be slow. If the code were released for others around the world to work together on, deployment could happen much faster.

    I’m amazed at how many people still don’t understand the power of things like Wikipedia and Linux. I recommend my book to those people:

    • Joseph Leong Keith Curtis October 15, 2010 on 7:36 am

      hey, if you’re so insistent that Google should give away their code and forsake their claim to future profits for the sake of a better world, why don’t you open-source your book while you’re at it?

      I’m sure many people can add stuff with is far beyond your capability as an individual, and by the power of things like Wikipedia and Linux its progress will be (by definition) blistering fast; and we’d see a perfect book by the end of the year. And it’ll be free! Everyone will read it. So, what’s stopping ya?

      • Keith Curtis Joseph Leong October 16, 2010 on 4:57 am

        Are you just trolling?

        A book != software. My book is not science and I explain the difference.

        I think Google would be better off releasing their code as free. They don’t even sell software like Microsoft. They’ve released a number of pieces of free software so I don’t know if they think thought they were forsaking profits for the sake of a better world. Google is actually of two contradictory positions on software.

        • Joseph Leong Keith Curtis October 16, 2010 on 8:51 am

          Your book is intellectual property. So is their code. Labeling your own work as “not a science” and thus exempt from your own altruistic ideals is a very convenient cop out.

          Regardless what their stance is on free code, the fact remains that it is their code, and it’s their prerogative to release it when and where they should. I agree that releasing their code would do the world a favor, but doing the world favors doesn’t bring home the bacon.

          But you – you stand here and cuss them for not understanding power of things like wikipedia and linux, but you yourself can’t relinquish your own rights to your work. You are actually of two contradictory positions on intellectual property.

          I think if you released your book for free, people would really believe you when you say there’s power in the open-source, and that everyone should take that dive. But until then, please don’t diss others for not doing what you couldn’t, and for goodness sake don’t shamelessly plug your own product while you’re at it.

          • Keith Curtis Joseph Leong October 16, 2010 on 3:50 pm

            My book explains why software is different from music and movies and books.
            It’s not a cop out, it’s a distinction that I’ve thought about more deeply than you have.

            I am not important. What is important is the idea that Google “owning” AI is scarier than Microsoft owning Windows and Office.

  • james pruett October 12, 2010 on 3:50 am

    I agree. They took all the fun from Carnegie Mellon and drug it west coasty…

    Hey, build a GPS cruise control. The future is now:

  • Mlnsports October 12, 2010 on 4:02 am

    The cars will come much faster than that. We ballparked video on computers as a 15 year enterprise, but it rolled out to mainstream in just under 10 and to ubiquitous in 12. That was with a whole lot slower technology curve (hard drives, screens, etc.) than we have now. Never say never.

    • Keith Curtis Mlnsports October 12, 2010 on 4:15 am

      We have all the necessary hardware for driverless cars and have had it for decades. It is just a matter of getting a robust world-wide community working together on the software.

  • Timothy Matias October 12, 2010 on 5:06 am

    @Keith Curtis “Google’s code is all proprietary.” As implied by the rest of your comment “I’m amazed at how many people still don’t understand the power of things like Wikipedia and Linux”, you seem to think that *all* of Google’s code is proprietary, but this is far from the case. Two of the most successful open-source projects, Chromium Browser (upon which Google Chrome is based) and Android, are Google brainchilds. Google has initiated many other open source projects, committed code to the Linux kernel. In addition, the majority of google servers, databanks, and company computers run on Linux (usually a customized derivative of Ubuntu). Google created Google Code, a website dedicated to hosting, assisting, and supporting open-source projects and code distribution. Google’s commitment to open-source is quite evident, so as a fellow open-source enthusiast I must question how it is that you haven’t noticed as much.

    • Keith Curtis Timothy Matias October 12, 2010 on 5:12 am

      I meant all their code for this project.

      • Chris Keith Curtis October 12, 2010 on 6:59 am

        Google could also release their search engine code. It would help the world develop better search engines. But Google is a commercial company. If I am not mistaken, youtube is still generating losses for them and many other projects as well. So they are not your typical capitalistic company – they also have ideals other than money.
        Cooperation is useful and in many cases better than competition – but competition is still an important aspect of our societies that limits cooperation in many cases.

        • Keith Curtis Chris October 12, 2010 on 9:56 pm

          So we agree that Google’s support for free software is mixed.

          You haven’t demonstrated that Google would have lower revenue if they released their search engine code. One big difference is that Microsoft made all of their money on licensing revenue, whereas with Google (and Apple) this is not the case. Yet both don’t give away a lot their software.

          Anyway, this computer vision code has no connection to their profits and yet still they don’t release it. So why should we assume that much of the rest of their secret code is also all related to their profit margins also?

          Google’s first mistake was using free software but adopting the Microsoft model for all of its own. They’ve gotten better, but they don’t grok free software yet.

  • Steven Moore October 12, 2010 on 5:43 am

    besides, who cares if its a human or robot driving as long as its not me? Its the same thing in the end.

  • Steven Moore October 12, 2010 on 5:46 am

    btw, one of the reasons that automation on highways may be required, is that due to higher gas prices, people and states in general (I don’t know about the federal government, it may not be working at all by then), will demand greater efficiency, and coordinating traffic more efficiently will be instrumental to that prior to us going fully electric. So once you have traffic on highways say, in LA, running more efficiently, saving a lot of people time, then you can see how the technology will gain demand, and grow from then on.

    • Steven Moore Steven Moore October 12, 2010 on 5:49 am

      i think google is hella smart with this move…Im not going to speculate about their motives, but I think they have more in mind than simply you searching online while in your robotically controlled car..

      They have the plan of connecting the real world to the cybernetic one…to organize everything in a seemless fashion…And that robotic car is just the first step.

  • Steven Moore October 12, 2010 on 5:55 am

    I also see full automation coming a lot faster in big cities that are not sprawled out, like new york city, or shanghai. Especially megacities. Because city streets are a lot more easy to regulate and navigate, human or computer alike, than the vast nuances of suburban life. In fact, the only reason city driving is so bad, are other drivers. You get the human element out of the way, and put the whole city under robotic control, and what do you know, you have a seemless driving experience. So I think actually that say, new york city, may be fully robotically automated in its driving, perhaps not even needing a virtual cab service, by 2025.

    • Steven Moore Steven Moore October 12, 2010 on 6:00 am

      im an engineer and I work in AI, and know about advances in other engineering disciplines, so Id like to think I know what im talking about.

    • Steven Moore Steven Moore October 12, 2010 on 6:10 am

      what you basically get by interconnecting a city like new york with a network of computers, is that all transportation becomes public transportation, yet you don’t get rid of the convenience of your own car. Thats efficiency and individual comfort combined. Best of both worlds.

      • Max Steven Moore October 17, 2010 on 9:19 am

        Thats interesting idea. I am not sure how much its true though.Cars are not efficient not only because they are driven by humans ( trains and buses are driven by humans as well) ,but because they move a ton of steel for to move one 200 pound human.

        – that is main killer right there. Then of course there is a factor that roads where human drive is atrociously ineffective system.

        I personally think cars are just evil. Trains are much better from any possible perspective.

  • Gabriel Arthur Petrie October 12, 2010 on 11:04 am

    I think it’s a bad idea to automate anything that would be too expensive or present to high of a liability if it went wrong. It’s a great sci fi inspired idea, but it doesn’t have a practical use amongst intelligent people. There’s this smug, self-centered idea among members of a certain class in America, that they always deserve to have their lives hands-free, attention-free, yet fully serviced. It’s what’s causing the current rash of phone- and texting-related auto accidents. On that note, raising a grey cloud over the imminent regulations there will be against “robotic” cars sounds like exactly the same whining voice we hear complain about regulations against phoning- or texting-and-driving. If you like the automatic chauffer idea, you should be all for regulations against it, so that it is forced to improve to satisfy the majority’s concerns. Now, safety and legislation aside, there is still one more thing you should think about: hacking. These days, everybody’s neighbor hacks. Hack products are sold like hotcakes, usually because they improve something you own or give you a new capability you otherwise wouldn’t. You can bet that it will turn out, given the complexity of the chauffer system described by Google in this article, that it’s an extremely easy system to hack with obviously immediate results including the death of someone you don’t know and the destruction of someone else’s expensive property. So even if they are allowed on the road, seriously, do you want to drive one when it could turn out that any person with two laser pointers can steer it into oncoming traffic? Think about it.

    • Hjalmar Gabriel Arthur Petrie October 12, 2010 on 11:10 am

      Maybe, but I think it is easier to make a manually driven car crash by using two laser pointers, aiming it in the face of the driver.

  • Mlnsports October 12, 2010 on 1:24 pm

    You also forget about all of the people who hate commuting, would love the diamond lane that runs automatically and older people like we have here in Florida who need drivers just to get to the market and back. Google will go ka-ching!

  • Teabreak October 12, 2010 on 3:13 pm

    re: “but society is not prepared to use it.”

    I’m ready to use it if it’s cheap and works.

    It’s already legal with an overide system and would make motorway cruising more relaxed if nothing else.

    • Max Teabreak October 17, 2010 on 9:21 am

      I hate driving. I would easily pay for it as much as car costs. Heck if I was rich I would pay a lot more, but alas I am not

  • Kristof77 October 12, 2010 on 4:13 pm

    I see this Tech as one of those disruptive advancements that will propel this world into a new Robotics Area. Once this tech is tried, trusted and true and all of the social political issue are addresed) the number of robots in this world would dramicaly increase and give everyone first hand experience to their benefits. The economy would be impacted tremendously by the elimination of millions upon millions of jobs across the globe. Then the cost of transporting goods would be reduced dramitically since the transportaion system will be highly effeicent and 24/7. Anything that needs to travel from point A to B will get their faster and cheaper.

    I personally look forward to tucking my family into the car at night and then waking up in disneylands parking lot the following morning fully rested and ready for some fun.

  • ashley October 12, 2010 on 5:07 pm

    Wow! this is crazy!

  • lexis October 12, 2010 on 5:08 pm

    Oh yea.. what about the hackers? thats death waiting…

    • Greg lexis October 12, 2010 on 5:26 pm

      There is already a model that limits liability to producers of products that follow a set of “best practices” – the vaccine producers are granted a large measure of immunity from lawsuits. I see no problem with extending this protection to the makers of robotic driven vehicles. Likewise, there is the same model that applies when you make a mistake on the road and drive head on into a van – insurance. The makers of the car will be required to carry insurance, the cost of which will be passed on to you.

      • Keith Curtis Greg October 13, 2010 on 5:05 am

        You can do lots of things to make a device not hackable. Ever tried to hack an ATM?

  • vin baby October 12, 2010 on 5:09 pm

    Vinny not pretty. hes ugly

  • Mark Bruce October 13, 2010 on 12:29 am

    It worked for the engineering challenge, so maybe Google will use the same strategy for the socio-political one too. Maybe they’ll hire The Best team of automotive lobbyists / insurance lawyers and set them to work implementing the framework for the first early system to smooth the introduction of the technology?

  • Robert J. Berger October 13, 2010 on 4:37 am

    Its possible the Liability issue could flip in the other direction. As soon as its shown that robotic cars are safer than humans, the insurance companies may charge a lot more for human drivers insurance than for robots and make it too expensive for humans to drive.

  • Mark Bruce October 14, 2010 on 12:55 am

    Interesting point @Robert J. Berger
    If robotic cars are shown to reduce human fatalities by half, and yet The State refuses to allow widespread introduction of automated vehicles (essentially making a decision that results in the death of 600,000 human lives PER YEAR) might we see a massive class-action lawsuit against said State for allowing this to happen?

  • Anonymous October 14, 2010 on 9:53 am

    The liability issue is probably overblown, because the robocar will not be a robocar at first, but a roboshuttle, and then a robotruck. And then only a robocab.
    It will be used first as a replacement for shuttles and buses in airports and other closed, well delimited systems. The liability will befall to the same company that worked the shuttles before, and its insurance, but it will be better since there will be fewer accidents.
    Then trucks will become automated, so they can drive 24/7 with fewer accidents and stops only to swap batteries. The companies will save a lot of money, and pass on their liability to their insurances (with lowered rates).
    Then cab companies will create automated fleets. Likewise, liability will be with the company but underwritten to an insurance, which will be less costly than with human drivers due to falling accident rates and thus litigation.

  • ShaNaNaNaNaNaKneesKnees October 14, 2010 on 11:28 pm

    Computer or robotic systems have a tendency to perform and remember exact values or rules in exceptionally large quantities, without error, relative to humans. Thus, I truly believe this robotic car technology will revolutionize the world profoundly and very positively, in terms of traffic flow efficiency and safety, etc. I want to see this technology implemented everywhere and very soon!

  • TH34 October 15, 2010 on 1:15 am

    What people are missing is that the big thing abot robot driving isnt have a robotic car. Its about robotic delivery trucks. The cost of delivery will go down massively when you no longer need a driver. Think about the day when Walmart and grocery are replaced by a robotic warehouse which has a fleet of robotic trucks and can deliver what ever you ordered oneline within half an hour. Each warehouse will be within half an hour driving distance. If the one closest to you doesnt have what you want then it will be shiped from another warehouse and give you a time when it will be available.

  • Ajsjdjdjd October 15, 2010 on 8:09 am

    Not all countries are lAwyered up…

  • Jay October 16, 2010 on 10:32 pm

    You’re right. Autonomous driving most definitely isn’t near.

    It’s here already.

    To say Google didn’t know about the social-legal implications, is simply an assumption. Do you honestly think they haven’t given it thought?

    The article title may attract attention, but it is misleading because it would sets the reader up for the idea that somehow Google’s self driving cars are a hype.

    This is an example of a phenomenon that Kurzweil describes: as soon as AI tackles yet another problem we couldn’t possible have conceived solvable by AI only a few years ago, we get used to it instantly.

    The original article stated the 8 year timeframe already. It’s not like Singularity Hub has made a breaking discovery here. Reality isn’t dashing anything.

    Other than this I like this site just fine, btw.

  • UI Architect October 19, 2010 on 3:56 pm

    There are two types: one who earns his bread by doing the work and the other by talking about it. Whether the work will be a success or failure, only time will tell – there is no formula. But how fair is to predict that it will fail? We don’t even know what Google has foreseen by investing in this project; the most one can or should do is appreciate their efforts.

  • Jlawrence6809 November 3, 2010 on 10:47 am

    Really automated cars need only be proven safer than human drivers not 100% safe (after all thats why we have insurance). In fact insurance on automated cars would no doubt become cheaper than for human driven cars once they are proven safer.

  • Dave November 7, 2010 on 8:16 pm

    A) I dont see why google dosent pursue ways to turn specific roads in the us – such as express ways, into roads where autonomus cars can drive.

    Why i suggest this – if we can find situations where a car will not be running into things it cant handle yet – then why not let it – this will increase demand for such things and allow companies to provide more money for it too.

    Also, if you have heard about the aging crisis – well guess what – all those old people we expect to have need some way of getting around and being independed – considering they outnumber us by – A LOT!

    autonomus cars are the perfect thing for creating a sense of indipendence in the old and young alike.

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