The world is one step closer to the day when people can, in good conscience, drive to work while sipping coffee, texting with a friend and working on a laptop computer.
On Friday, Google announced that sometime this summer several prototype versions of its self-driving cars are set to hit the streets of Mountain View, Calif., the search giant’s hometown. The move is still just another round of testing, but it is a significant step toward a pilot program in which regular consumers could ride in self-driving cars.
Google has long been testing its self-driving car technology with a fleet of Lexus sport utility vehicles that have driven about 1 million miles on public roads and that continue to put in 10,000 miles a week.
Traditional automakers are also pushing the envelope of driverless tech with on-the-road testing of their own autonomous prototypes, and the industry predicts that by 2020 those dreams could come true.
Getting there is now much more about software than hardware. The systems of radar, lasers and cameras used by Google and automakers have grown so sophisticated that the vehicles can easily monitor the road in all directions. The tough part is figuring out what to do with all that information.
In essence, the cars need an electronic brain that knows how to drive in a world where human drivers, as well as pedestrians and bicyclists, often do unpredictable things.
City environments are particularly challenging and require software with much more flexibility and power. That’s one of the reasons Google (and rival Apple) hope their software acumen can help solve the puzzle.
Google’s prototype is designed to be a fully autonomous car. The prototypes cannot go faster than 25 mph and for now have a steering wheel and pedals so a “safety driver” could take over.