published an incredible story
by Burkhard Bilger on
) automated cars.
This story does for engineering what
All the President's Men
did for journalism: It makes decades of grueling work seem like a
picaresque adventure of discovery. Here are a few things about
self-driving cars that we learned from this article.
1. Self-driving cars are the future of yesterday.
We started hearing about Google's X division and its ambitious
projects just a few years ago, and we know that other companies,
), are developing similar ideas. But the driverless-car story
begins much earlier. In the late 1950s,
) worked on a "smart roads" concept, in which jet fighter-like cars
would be controlled by an electric cable and radio. Bilger's story
goes on to describe several other pre-Google attempts related to
2. Congress has its role in the growth of automated
Its goal is to have all ground-combat vehicles be autonomous by
2015. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the
military's cutting-edge research arm that helped birth the
Internet, wasn't making much headway, so it held a race.
In 2004, DARPA challenged engineers to get an empty, fully robotic
car down 42 miles of twisting road in the Mojave Desert. Anthony
Levandowski, who is now a Google X engineer, thought far outside
the box and developed a self-driving motorcycle. His Berkley team
got some funding for it from
Advanced Micro Devices
(AMD). They were up against competition from Carnegie Mellon,
funded by GM, and Caltech with
(NOC). In the first challenge, the Carnegie team made it seven and
a half miles before crashing and burning. The motorcycle made it
just a few feet.
A rematch was staged, and DARPA offered twice the original prize
explains how that went down.
3. Google needs to be seriously secretive.
There is a sign at the entrance of Google's many cafeterias that
warns against the possibility of corporate spies following an
employee into the building.
4. Street View and Maps make millions of data corrections
The Google car engineers were first tasked with perfecting Street
View, which provides mapping data that is much more accurate than
5. The first prototype for the Google car was made for
The engineers didn't think that a self-driving car could make it on
city streets, but gave it a go for
6. The first test run of Google's robotic car on city
streets happened in 2008, and the car's non-driver had its own
The car made it through downtown San Francisco before getting stuck
against a wall, but that was enough to get Larry Page and Sergey
Brin to approve the car project.
7. The latest prototype still needs the driver to take
control in certain situations.
When there is road work ahead, drivers get a one-mile warning
before having to drive manually.
8. No automotive engineers were hired at first.
The project's lead engineers wanted to bring in a new breed who
would think outside the box.
9. Google's founders make challenges for the car
To test the prototype's ability, Brin and Page design itineraries
that include busy San Francisco traffic, in which the human driver
is not allowed to even touch the brake. (Some of the California
road trips designed by Google's founders sound gorgeous.)
10. In development, the self-driving car was hopeless at
Abiding the law to the tee was problematic since, like an overly
polite Canadian, the car would not enter four-way intersections
until the streets were free of vehicles, which is not the way
humans drive. The article doesn't specify whether this issue has
11. The car's cameras could spot a 14-inch object 160 feet
It can also see traffic patterns far ahead down the road, so it
knows when to stop.
12. The self-drive function doesn't work well in the
The sensors get messed up when the lasers bounce off of shiny
Self-driving cars are expected to make us all a lot safer, but not
only people will benefit, as illustrated by one heartstring-pulling
episode that the article described:
"[Lead programmer Dmitri] Dolgov was riding through a wooded area
one night when the car suddenly slowed to a crawl. 'I was thinking,
What the hell? It must be a bug,' he told me. 'Then we noticed the
deer walking along the shoulder.' The car, unlike its riders, could
see in the dark."
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