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Google on new path, developing self-driving cars

Look, Ma! No hands! Google uses Maps, cameras, radar for autonomous cars

October 11, 2010 05:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Picture sitting in your car, maneuvering through busy downtown traffic while talking on your phone or sending a few texts.

This isn't a scene of illegal texting or phone use. Why not? Because the car in this scenario is driving itself, leaving the passengers inside free to use their mobile phones. (In Google's ideal scenario, you'd be talking on an Android phone.)

This is Google's image of the future. The company known best for its search engine announced this past weekend that its engineers are working on developing technology for cars that can drive themselves. Autonomous cars may be a bit far afield from Google's normal work in search, browsers, operating systems and maps, but the company is looking to head down a new road.

"Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard," wrote Sebastian Thrun, a distinguished software engineer at Google, in a Saturday blog post. "They've driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research."

Thrun also noted that the cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to virtually "see" other cars and the basic traffic flow. The company that introduced Google Maps and Google Earth also used mapping technology to navigate the roadways, and it took advantage of Google's massive data centers to hold and process all of this information.

While the autonomous cars were on the road, they were occupied by a "trained safety driver," as well as a software engineer who could monitor the vehicle's software operations.

"We've always been optimistic about technology's ability to advance society, which is why we have pushed so hard to improve the capabilities of self-driving cars beyond where they are today," Thrun wrote. "While this project is very much in the experimental stage, it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future thanks to advanced computer science. And that future is very exciting."

So why would Google, a company whose name is a verb for Internet searching, set its sights on autonomous vehicles?

One reason is because it can, said Ray Valdes, an analyst at research firm Gartner.

"The long answer is that likely there are multiple reasons," Valdes said. "This may have been an offshoot of the Street View mapping in Google Maps, and that took on a life of its own. Probably the project was not killed because it is cool, had support of senior management, and there is some potential reward further down the road, so to speak."

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