How Google's Self-Driving Car Works

Illustration for article titled How Google's Self-Driving Car Works

We're wary of self-driving cars in general, and Google's driverless car technology is anything but proven, but we do have to admit that seeing Google's behind-the-scenes process is extremely cool. Join us as we cautiously examine how Google's trying to make self-driving cars work.


The fascinating piece here is seeing how the self-driving car sees the world, as demonstrated in this video (it gets especially interesting around nine minutes in) from the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. A 64-beam laser, radar and cameras are simultaneously detecting traffic lights, reading their outputs, tracking pedestrians, and watching other cars.

Since all of these inputs are being tracked omnidirectionally, situational awareness is partially superior to a normal human. Granted, the car probably can't sense if two meth-addicted transvestite sex workers are having a fight that's about to spill onto the street, but it seems to sense most high likelihood events.

More impressive than how it sees the world is how it computes that data. The video of the autonomous Prius shows it judging the intentions of cars at a four-way stop and, after yielding to people jumping their turn, it eases its way into the intersection to announce its intentions. Using previously collected data about the world, it can sense what's a permanent object (a light pole) and what's new.

Do we believe an autonomous car can make better driving decisions than we can? Absolutely not. Can it make better decisions than some other drivers? It looks that way.

More info on how it works at IEEE Spectrum.

(Hat tip to Jeremy!)


Alex Devlin

"Do we believe an autonomous car can make better driving decisions than we can? Absolutely not."

Absolutely yes.

The thing with these cars is that they are concentrating and analysing what's going on around them 100% of the time. No matter how good a driver you think you are, no-one concentrates 100% of the time when driving. Your mind may start to think about something else, like what's for dinner tonight, or what route would have less traffic at this time of day. You may see a pretty woman/man/hooker and look at them for more than a tenth of a second. These cars won't do that. (Unless they drive past an Apple store in which case...)

What they can't do is factor in the human aspect. That 'feeling' you get that someone is going to do something stupid or isn't paying attention as well as they should be. That comes with years of driving experience that lets you know to watch out. Like when you see a car full of teenagers heading out of school at lunch time going to 7-11. You know that they might not be doing everything they should be to drive safe. These cars can't factor that into it. But they can and will react quicker than anyone else if that car full of idiots does drift out of their lane or slam their brakes on at the last minute.

So can they make better driving decisions than we can? 99.99etc% of the time, yes they can. Once in awhile you may see something that's going to happen before it does. But even then you would have the advantage over the car for less than a micro second. As soon as it starts to happen the car would react to it while you're still in the "f*cking knew it!" moment.

As much as I hate to admit it, taking humans out of the driving experience would be far safer for everyone on the road. It may even have an effect on traffic if all the cars are able to proceed quickly and safely through junctions and apart from uncontrollable things like loss of traction or mechanical faults, accidents would be reduced to almost zero. People would be able to do what they like to do most when driving, everything BUT drive. You could text, browse the web, read a book, shave, eat, shit, have sex, etc...

Would I want to be unable to drive myself ever again? No. I would like to either be able to take manual control (which should be an option only when the car is at a standstill and not moving) or I would own another car that can't auto-drive. But lets be honest here. Most of us most of the time aren't driving for enjoyment but out of a necessity to get somewhere. We don't like being in traffic. We could use the time more effectively to catch up on work, or with friends, email, Jalopnik, etc. So most of us would enjoy having a car that drives itself. Think how much better it would be to go out for a few beers knowing that you can legally drive your own car there and then legally have your own car drive you back home. If you've ever used cruise control in your life, you will use one of these and enjoy the benefit of it too.

And think of what other benefits there would be if these can legally drive themselves without anyone on board. While you're at work it can drive itself to get serviced and then go get detailed so it's nice and clean for your date tonight. Have it stop by that pizza place you just ordered online from. Have them put them on the seat and lunch will be here as soon as you get your break. Have it go pick your kids up from school and drop them at soccer practice before coming to get you from work. Send the car out to find you a hooker and score some drugs and meet you back at the hotel while you're waiting for this boring ass 'team building conference' your work forced you to go on.

In all seriousness now. Who wouldn't want a car that can take over the boring bits of driving for you?