Google broadens its self-driving car tests in Austin

31 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A Cyclist’s Track Stand Befuddled One of Google’s Self-Driving Cars.

As the Austin, Texas, cyclist wrote on a biking forum, he recently came to a four-way stop sign a moment after the Google autonomous car. Austin will be the first city outside of Google’s hometown of Mountain View, Calif., to test the company’s first fully self-driving cars, the company announced Saturday.It’s usually easy for our human brains to predict how any given car, pedestrian, or cyclist is going to act, but computers must be programmed to “understand” all of our varying behaviors on the road. To let the car go first, he did a track stand: a maneuver riders of fixed-gear bikes often do to stand in place without dismounting, which requires turning the front wheel back and forth.

But when Google brought its testing program to Austin, Texas, one of the vehicles met its match: a cyclist doing a track stand – when a rider shifts very slightly forward and back to maintain balance while keeping feet on the pedals. The pod-like cars are expected to arrive next week and will be seen on roads in a small area north and northeast of downtown sometime in the next few weeks, the company said. Another report, this one by Benchmark Reporter, says the city of Austin will host three new prototypes of self-driving cars. “The auto is equipped with sensory technology that creates a ‘security bubble’ around it and allows the vehicle to see its surroundings for up to a football field away,“ says Urmson. “It’s been incredible, the spirit and openness that Austin has shown to us. If you are, then the car is a self-evident engineering miracle – a triumph of the combinatorial innovation that the economist W Brian Arthur sees as the essence of technology – by which he means the way in which a number of different, separately evolving, technologies suddenly combine to enable something that was hitherto inconceivable.

In his account posted on an online forum, he explains that the car apparently detected his presence and stayed stationary, struggling to work out whether the rider was moving forward or not: The cyclist balancing on his pedals, while moving a tiny bit to keep upright, confused a computer’s understanding of how cycles behave. The cyclist stopped, and after a moment, the car began to move again, but then another subtle movement from the cyclist froze it in its tracks. “We repeated this little dance for about two full minutes and the car never made it past the middle of the intersection,” the cyclist wrote. “The two guys inside were laughing and punching stuff into a laptop, I guess trying to modify some code to ‘teach’ the car something about how to deal with the situation.” It’s tempting to interpret all this as a sign of the steep learning curve Google’s cars will encounter as they drive more in the complex conditions of the real world. If, however, you’re a normal human being then the notion that mass use of the self-driving car could become a practical reality in the foreseeable future seems like the purest hogwash.

Just imagine, for example, all the regulatory changes that would be needed all over the world to make the vehicle a feasible everyday mode of transportation. Google’s cars did, however, show some trouble when faced with a bicycle track stand, where you keep your bike upright at a stop without taking your feet off the pedals.

One reason why there is been so much excitement about the Google car is that it goes to the heart of a pathology of modern life – our dependence on automobiles. To date, Google’s cars have traveled nearly 2 million miles in California and Texas, but have only been involved in 14 minor collisions — all of which were other drivers’ fault. On the other hand, they are dangerous, expensive, polluting and inefficient: the average car ferries a single individual for most trips and is parked for most of the day.

Nothing happened beyond some good laughs, but it was clear that Google’s self-driving code didn’t know how to handle a not-quite-stationary bike. That will bring new challenges, such as adjusting to the city’s horizontal streetlights — Mountain View has vertical ones — and also seeing how the cars react in different kinds of weather. The reasoning behind this is that Google cars have now driven 2m miles on Californian roads with only 14 incidents, all of them, say the company, caused by other, human-driven, vehicles. “The conversion to autonomous vehicles,” concludes KPMG, “may bring about the most significant change to the automobile insurance industry since its inception. As another Google post detailed, its cars frequently spot people driving on the wrong side of the road, dangerously turning across several lanes of traffic, and proceeding through intersections when there are still cars or cyclists in them. The disruption to insurers may be profound, and the change could happen faster than most expect.” Well, it could, but somehow I think it’s going to take quite a while to get to self-driving nirvana.

It sounds as though those testing scenarios didn’t include track stands, so now Google will need to “teach” its autonomous algorithm to understand a new facet of human culture. Devon is a ravishing county, but it has one quirk from the motorist’s point of view: it has lots of extremely narrow lanes, most of which have high hedges growing on either side.

This is fine until a procession of three or four vehicles meets another procession of several cars stuck behind a truck, at which point the only way to reach a solution involves a good deal of human-to-human negotiation. This is something that even the dumbest human is good at, but which will lie beyond the capability of even the smartest machine for some time to come. It’s specifically upgraded its software to navigate chaotic city streets, and earlier this year it patented a way for its cars to interpret bikers’ hand signals. Anyone who’s spent much time walking or biking in the US is familiar with the danger human drivers pose when you don’t have the protection of a big metal shell around you. As someone who travels mainly by bike — and has experienced countless uncomfortably close passes and near-misses when drivers fail to see me — the idea of riding next to self-driving cars is way more appealing.

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