Saturday, May 19, 2012

Google's self driving car

Marveling over what they billed as the potential future for getting around town, D.C. Council members Mary Cheh and Tommy Wells took a quick spin Thursday in Google’s new self-driving car.

Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairwoman of the Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation, and Wells (D-Ward 6) rode about 10 blocks in the self-driving Toyota Prius following a briefing with Google officials at the company’s Washington office on New York Avenue NW.

“It would enable people who are not able to drive, people who are blind or disabled, it would enable them to drive a car,” Cheh said after the trip. “It would also have an extraordinary impact on parking, and traffic itself, because cars are idle about 90 percent of the time…so cars could be used by more than one person. You could get out of your car and tell it to go find a parking space.”

Google received a special permit from the District to bring the prototype of the car to city and test drive it on city streets – so long as there was someone in the vehicle who could manually control it at a moment’s notice.

But Google officials say its fleet of self-driving vehicles has a superior safety record, which recently convinced Nevada officials to grant the company permission to test-drive the vehicle on that state’s relatively flat and traffic-free highways.

For much of the week, Cheh’s office hyped the test-drive to the local media. But things didn’t exactly go as planned.

When reporters arrived outside of Google’s office, company officials were surprised to see them. Apparently, according to Google staffers, the company wasn’t aware the event was going to be filmed by the media. They declined on-camera interviews and instructed reporters not to film the inside of the car, citing confidential technology.

Speaking on background, one of the developers of the car said he is “confident” the company can “build a car that drives safer then a human” based on “many, many miles of testing and a long safety record.”

Still, Google officials conceded there are still kinks that need to be worked out before the vehicle could be mass produced, including how to avoid other vehicle accidents that could be blocking travel lanes.

“Those are challenges and the kinds of situations that are not standard,” the developer said. “We are learning how to navigate those.”

But both Google officials and Cheh and Wells said the car “drives conservatively,” which diminishes concerns about safety.

Neither Google officials nor the council members could describe what, if anything, Google is seeking from the District government as it relates to the vehicles. It could be years before the car would be mass-produced.

Cheh and Wells, however, emerged from their ride giddy with ambition.

“Trips would be far more efficient,” Cheh said. “You won’t hear on the radio there is an accident on (Interstate) 395, there won’t be accidents … Most of the pollution and traffic in this city, 30 percent I think, is cars circling to find a parking space. The car will be told to go find a legal parking space.”

When asked how the car would be able to read the District’s notoriously confusing parking signs, Cheh said, “All of this is uploaded now.”

At first blush, Wells and Cheh’s interest in the vehicles appears to run counter to both of their often espoused views that the District should be working to reduce the number of vehicles on city streets.

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