With camera and laser sensors, cars like Google's Prius and China's Hongqi HQ3 can navigate safely through real traffic.

The race is on. Last month China cut their driverless car loose for a fully automated, 177 mile (286 km) road trip – all without GPS. Guided completely by sensors the car successfully navigated real roads with real travelers at an average speed of 54mph (87 kph). Although details are scarce, the car seems to be equipped with much of the same technology that allows Google's driverless Prius perform so amazingly. Thought to have left the competition in the dust, it appears Google's got some fast-moving competition.

The car is a techno-tricked out Hongqi HQ3, property of China’s National University of Defense Technology. Two cameras mounted behind the windshield served as the car's eyes. In addition a set of laser range finders helped the car to sense it surroundings. The data from both were fed to a computer in the trunk – the ultimate backseat driver.

Because the car needs sunlight they started the car’s trip at 9 am. The time to travel the expressway between Changsha and Wuhan cities was three hours and 20 minutes. It wasn’t city driving but it’s still very impressive. Not timid on its first day of driving, the car overtook 67 other cars on the expressway. It changed speeds and changed lanes while the research team just sat back and enjoyed the ride. “We only set a maximum speed and then left everything to the car itself,” professor Dai Bin told China Daily. That maximum speed was 68 mph (110 Km/h). A few complications arose in the form of fog and thunderstorm as well as unclear road markings, but no intervention was mentioned by the researchers. I can only imagine the other travelers on the road looking over to see the driver with his hands off the wheel, possibly updating his Facebook about how cool his new ride is. Oh wait, I forgot Facebook’s banned in China.

They don’t say explicitly, but most likely there’s no need for GPS because the car didn’t need to follow directions, just stay on the expressway. If that was all it did then it really wouldn’t be any more advanced than Volkswagen’s Temporary Auto Pilot. But the fact that it’s passing cars and switching lanes brings driverless car technology that much closer to the rubber hitting the road.

And it’s about time.

This past June Nevada passed a law that requires their Department of Motor Vehicles to set driverless vehicle regulations. Last August a pair of driverless vans made the 8,000 mile trek from Italy to China. Stanford and Google are both working hard to develop their own driverless cars.

The fact that Google was lobbying Nevada to get the law passed suggests that they feel their modified Toyota Prius is ready to make driverless cars a part of our everyday lives. And judging from the TED Talks update by Google’s Sebastian Thrun it’s hard to argue otherwise. In the video below you’ll see Google’s Prius skillfully navigate the tight and busy city streets of San Francisco. It obeys traffic signals and signs, stops within feet of pedestrians, can drive at night, and even swerves around a parallel parker without slowing down. This ain’t no straight shot jaunt down an expressway. Google’s taken their training wheels off.

The video blows me away. I mean, this is what a driverless car is supposed to look like. It’s not a few tricks on an isolated obstacle course, it’s the real deal. Seeing this video, it’s hard to believe that driverless cars won’t see some serious road time very soon. And given their new law, it’ll probably be in Nevada.


And what a great testing ground Vegas would be for driverless cars!  In no other city in the US do people take to the streets with such reckless abandonment. And if you believe the rumors that alcohol is consumed in large quantity there, the driverless car option might be far safer than the mindless one. And given Vegas’s celebrity-riddled late night mayhem, I can’t think of a better place to showcase to the rest of the world that driverless cars are okay. If it works – safely – in Vegas, it’ll probably work in your city too (Although downtown New York will certainly give the car a run for its money. Just think, Cash Cab can install a money wheel.).

I may be making light of “Elvis Prefers Driverless Cars!” but the issue of getting the public comfortable with a hands-off 60 mph ride is a very real and important one. There’s no doubt in my mind that the computers will prove to be the better drivers. Of course, we have to see that for ourselves first. The reaction time for the Chinese car is 40 milliseconds, for humans 500 milliseconds. It won’t happen overnight, but the longer these cars are on the Vegas strip and we don’t hear about Stephen King-like malfunctions that cause the car to barrel through a crowd of crosswalkers, the more it’ll seep into our subconscious that these things are safe. And then, just like that, it’ll become uncool to not have them. As Thrun mentions in the video, car accidents are the number one killer of young people.

Who knows, maybe China’s Hongqi HQ3 is just as capable as Google’s Prius since they seem to be using similar technology. I’d have to see a video first. At any rate, competition with China is a good thing. If technological enthusiasm or social callings don’t make driverless cars a reality, economic incentive sure will. Anything to spur Google’s car quicker to the finish line.

video: Google Prius

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.