Google triples self-driving car fleet in four months

30 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Google May Preserve Role for (Human) Drivers in Self-Driving Cars.

On the rooftop of a former shopping mall turned Google X headquarters, a white, self-driving Google car prototype glided into position with the quiet hum of a refrigerator fan.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, right, made a surprise appearance at an event Tuesday dedicated to a press preview of the company’s self-driving car prototype. Instead, he wound up in a dusty, dimly lit garage near Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters six years ago, getting ready to ride a wave of technology that thrust him into an occupational oxymoron. Brin told reporters at Google headquarters. “And I think there’s always going to be pleasure in being able to hit the open road and enjoy that.” Mr.

Looking like a slightly larger version of a Fiat 500, the vehicle proceeded to provide a 5-minute loop that offered a few real-world obstacles, including a car, pedestrian and bicyclist veering into our lane. Page first put the project in motion in 2007, by convincing artificial intelligence researcher and DARPA Grand Challenge participant Sebastian Thrun to leave Stanford and come to Google, and they’ve only been publicly seen driving on the road in the past year and a half. Torcellini, 31, now leads a crew of test, or ”safety,” drivers who are legally required to ride in Google’s fleet of 48 robot cars that the Internet company’s engineers are programming to navigate the roads without human assistance. ”A lot of people go to work and sit in a cubicle,” Torcellini says. ”Our cube just happens to move around the roads. A car that can toggle between self-driving and manual modes would differ from the prototypes Google unveiled earlier this year that lack a steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedal. And if we are successful, we are going to put ourselves out of a job.” The driverless cars already have logged more than 2 million miles in six years of sometimes tedious testing on private tracks, highways and city streets located mostly near Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters.

But where Google has been generous over the years with rides in its dominant fleet of radar-packed Lexus SUVs, this event represented the first time this pod-like prototype was opened up to the press. The vehicles have traveled more than half that distance in automated mode, with one test driver in place to take control of the car if the technology fails or a potentially dangerous situation arises. While impressions from the ride will follow shortly, the important news is that Google appears to be exceedingly serious about consumers seeing the transportation fruits of this six-year-old project within the next four years. It’s coming along well, and I hope we can have this meeting in a few years when we will have made a small dent in this issue.” Brin said he frequently takes rides in Google’s self-driving cars, which include radar- and camera-packed Lexus SUVs as well as Google’s new two-person prototype. “In my rides, a number of times they’ve really impressed me and I’ve gained an appreciation for the 360-degree awareness, maybe when it swerves when someone does something sudden, where I would slam on the brakes.

Meanwhile, another driver sits in the front passenger seat typing notes about problems that need to be fixed and traffic scenarios that need to be studied. ”I don’t want to compare myself to an astronaut, but it kind of feels like that sometimes,” says Google test driver Ryan Espinosa while riding in an automated Lexus that recently took an Associated Press reporter on a 20-minute ride around town without requiring any human intervention. Brin and other Google executives stressed that humans are the most unsafe part of driving and that the company’s intends to largely remove humans from the process. “I think for a large percentage of our day-to-day driving we’re going to much prefer for the car to drive itself,” Mr. Although its headquarters here is inside the Google X building, which is dedicated to the company’s so-called “moonshot” projects, this self-driving car effort is far from a whimsical lark. For starters, the company not only has logged 1.2 million miles on public roads with its autonomous vehicles, but its engineers virtually drive another 3 million miles each day in computer simulations.

Brin’s appearance at the Google event was a surprise, and reflects his increasing involvement in the project, even as he has withdrawn from most day-to-day involvement in Google operations and makes fewer public appearances. In addition, Google, like traditional automakers, is conducting extensive durability testing on the new prototypes in extreme heat, cold and other weather situations. Everything will be controlled through a combination of sensors, lasers, software and intricate maps – a vision that could very well leave many of Google’s test drivers looking for a new line of work.

The Google billionaire, who co-founded the search company with Larry Page, acknowledged that although most of the current testing has been in urban centers, the cars could be used by rural populations in part using detailed mapping that is being done by Google’s Street View mapping team. His other passions include spear fishing and scuba diving, which he likens to the sensation he gets when he climbs into one of Google’s self-driving cars and pushes the button that activates the vehicle’s robotic controls. ”When you go scuba diving and take a moment to really think about it, you realize you are doing something that isn’t supposed to be humanly possible: you are breathing underwater,” Torcellini says. ”It’s the same kind of feeling you get in one of these cars.

In fact, in every instance Google self-driving car has been involved in an accident, it has been the fault of the human driver hitting the Google car. “What doesn’t surprise me is that it’s been the fault of human drivers around us, but what has surprised me is the frequency,” Brin said. “It’s not the end of the world, but it speaks to the challenge with all the phones and other distractions of our modern age. Brin on Tuesday reiterated the company’s plans to partner with auto makers to bring its self-driving technology to market. “We are really focused on working with partners,” he said. Overall, the team’s urgency was telegraphed by technical leader Chris Urmson, who has repeatedly said that his goal is to make sure his now 12-year-old son, Ethan, doesn’t have to apply for a California driver’s permit in four years. “Today, 1.2 million are killed worldwide each year, 33,000 of them in the U.S.. I have a hard time with that number,” Urmon said. “That’s the equivalent of five Boeing jets crashing every week, which to the airline industry would be completely unacceptable.” Beyond this death toll, Urmson said his team is motivated by a desire to solve for the world’s mounting traffic issues, which he said “amounts to 62 lifetimes lost by people sitting in traffic, why do we accept that?” He added that while cars are still sold with advertising images of people enjoying driving, “most of us don’t, due to traffic. So we decided, rather than try and enforce rules on people while they’re in the vehicle, let’s allow them to do what they want and remove the need to drive.” The vehicle that would allow drivers to become passengers and text or primp at will is a very open-feeling place.

Between the two passengers is a small console with a few familiar buttons for lowering windows, turning on heated seats and a single button to start the ride. More from WSJ.D: And make sure to visit WSJ.D for all of our news, personal tech coverage, analysis and more, and add our XML feed to your favorite reader. The only dead giveaway that this car is unusual, besides the lack of steering wheel, is the siren-like bubble on the roof containing the laser scanners, which help the car see obstacles well before they arrive. It’s likely around 100 because California law requires two test drivers per vehicle, and Google’s fleet currently consists of 25 pod-like cars and 23 Lexuses.

The drivers who start off as contractors begin at $20 per hour with ”many opportunities” for overtime when they log more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week, according to Google’s recent help-wanted listings posted on If you just imagine those kiddie rides where cars scoot up, pick up passengers and scoot off guided by a rail, that’s what riding in a Google self-driving prototype is like. That sort of scenario is indicative not just of the lengths Google is going to ensure that its vehicles can live in the real world, but also how challenging the real world will be for moving robots.

Half of the collisions have happened since February – a stretch when the self-driving cars were traveling an average of about 10,000 miles per week on public streets in autonomous mode. The self-driving technology hasn’t been to blame for any of the accidents, according to Google, though it says one collision was caused by an employee who was steering a robot car while running a personal errand.

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