Driving without actually driving is closer to becoming a reality than ever before, which makes the possibility of riding in your car while typing, taking a nap, reading a book or just relaxing a real possibility in the near future. That is not to say we will see all autonomous cars that will be able to head off road and take trails on their own, but for now there is technology out there that allows cars to drive themselves on many roads and Google is leading the way as the only non-automotive car company that is working to create an autonomous technology.
Recently Google invited several reporters and other members of the automotive community to enjoy rides in their autonomous vehicles. Currently Google has a few modified Lexus RX450h models and their own Google car in which they offered rides to this group to enjoy the ride. When you take a look at these cars it’s obvious from the start there are several technologies at work here. The Lexus shows itself with the spinning antennae on top of the vehicle that has become a signature aspect of these cars but also has several sensors all over the vehicle to ensure we know this is really a prototype of some sort.
The technology at work with these vehicles includes the cameras which are expected but also radar, LIDAR, GPS and more to sense every aspect of the environment around the vehicles. Since the Lexus models are prototypes and were headed out on public roads these rides were offered with two Google employees riding along in the front seat; one to take over the controls when needed and one to monitor the systems with their laptop. This made the rides feel a bit less autonomous, but was simply for safety.
Some of the observations shared during the rides included following speed signs, making lane changes, moving out into traffic and much more. The vehicle performed expertly on the roads to be perfect for the drive and followed every rule of the road. Other than the fact the car was driving itself the ride was exactly what you would expect from a Lexus RX on the road. The only real drawback at this point is the fact the car is limited to 35 mph as the maximum speed the car can travel which certainly won’t work for our highway speedy drivers.
Once the ride in the Lexus is over the Google team offered these reporters the chance to ride in the Google car without the aid of a driver to take over if needed. Of course this was set up at the Google complex with a closed course for safety, but the Google team offered a ton of challenges to the car. There were pedestrians, other cars, bicyclists and much more to challenge the Google autonomous vehicle which performed perfectly under pressure and in all situations. Certainly this makes Google the leader in this technology but what about other possibilities.
Looking at the two autonomous cars offered by Google it’s hard not to notice that the vehicles have all the sensors mentioned. Even though some of these will eventually be encased in body mounts, what happens when one fails? At your home computer if the system crashes or you have a bad search result you can start over, in a car you might not have that opportunity. This could easily mean a life or death situation, which Google seems to fully understand as they are working to make sure the system will be closed, flawless and safe for you to enjoy.
Another concern should be repair costs and even the costs of one of these vehicles with all the technology aboard. What happens when a sensor is damaged? Will the car still be able to be driven at least by the driver until the sensor is repaired or will the entire system shut down? These are certainly concerns for the future as we are not even to a point where Google will trust its own technology to highway speeds, but the fact that a car can drive itself is pretty cool and makes for great conversation. Are we headed down a path where all of our transportation will be done autonomously, only time will tell.