We don’t know whether the Champagne corks will be flying at Google when California’s Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill to legalize autonomous cars which was almost unanimously approved by the legislature on Wednesday. But Google’s intense lobbying efforts which started in Nevada have paid off: Now the internet giant is a big step closer to introduce autonomous cars on its home turf.
California is almost perfect for the introduction of autonomous cars. It is large and diverse enough to allow testing in almost all environments. There are regions with almost optimal weather conditions such as Southern California (snow being very unlikely except in the mountains). This is where Google could launch their first commercial trials for car-sharing, taxi or truck/logistics services.
The second great asset of California is its hotbed of innovation and technology in Silicon Valley which Google is part of and which it profits from. But driverless technology could give another boost to the valley and lead to many new products and services based on autonomous technology. When driverless technology becomes the next big thing, Silicon Valley will be at the center.
Driverless cars are a golden opportunity for the ‘Golden State’. The legislature was right to ignore the objections from the auto industry (which is worried about their business model).
We just came across an interesting interview by Sebastian Thrun, head of Google X and mastermind behind Google’s Driverless Car. In the interview conducted by Charlie Rose in late April he talks about Google’s project Glass, Udacity and driverless cars. He sounds a cautious note on the safety of autonomous cars. While the technology is already quite safe, he is still concerned about its capability of driving millions and millions of miles without error. He suggests that current driverless cars have not quite reached the perfomance level of an attentive human driver. In another interview with WIRED he also discusses the problem hinting, that the right combination between human and computer intelligence may need to be found to ensure maximum safety.
Are we right to conclude that Google’s driverless car team is finding it difficult to reach the intended safety level for their cars? From a statistical perspective it is very hard to prove that an autonomous vehicle can perform flawlessly for millions of miles. Just driving a few million miles in test mode is not enough.
So far Google has always emphasized that their driverless cars drive on known routes for which detailed navigation and localization data is available. Relying on stored information about a route, however, can be a major source of error. Therefore Google must also be working hard to run their cars without prerecorded mapping data. It would be interesting to know their progress in this area.
An additional approach for verifying the safety of their cars would be to develop a full-fledged simulator built around a physics engine which would be connected to the sensor and actuator interfaces of Google’s driverless car (for an early sketch of this approach, see our Innovation Brief (2010)). The driverless car control unit would receive sensor inputs generated by the simulator. These sensor inputs would be updated according to the simulated movement of the car depending on the signals received by the actuators. Building such a simulator would be a major challenge because of the large amount of sensor data which it would need to generate. But Google’s team has already collected much of the real-world data needed to populate the simulator.
The advantage of the simulator would be that the driverless car could be subjected to much more rigorous testing and that it would be much easier to detect and precisely test borderline situations. Invalid or problematic sensor data could be sent to the control unit, slippery surfaces, fog, rain and snow could be simulated by the physics engine. Unexpected behavior by vehicles, cyclists etc. could also be simulated and tested.
Google is moving ahead with its efforts to introduce driverless cars. On June 13 it submitted a smiling car icon for trademark protection at the US Patent and Trademark Office (application 85650611). The application does not provide explicit information about the intended use beyond a reference to autonomous driving, but it is obvious that the icon was primarily designed to show available cars in an online map. We have tried to anticipate what this could look like (see graphic below). Whereas Google’s car sharing service will be a natural fit with Google maps, we had to use OpenStreetMap for the graphic because of copyright issues.
The graphic shows Google cars available in Las Vegas; we don’t know yet where Google might ultimately launch a car-sharing service but Nevada has become the first state where key legal hurdles for the operation of autonomous cars have been removed.
Why is Google protecting the logo now? Unless Google has made much greater advances with its technology than is currently known, it is unlikely that an autonomous car sharing service operated by Google could be introduced before 2015. But Google could either be working on developing the software infrastructure for their future mobility services which would quickly lead to icon and logo issues. Or they could be contemplating starting (or buying) a conventional car-sharing service first. They would get first-hand experience and could gradually expand it into a driverless mobility service.
The logo is clear evidence that Google considers car-sharing as the primary business model for its driverless technology. It will not compete with established car makers heads on; instead it will change the fundamentals of personal mobility. Greatly reduced costs through car-sharing and increased flexibility will drive millions of customers away from private car ownership and into the service offerings of Google. Car-makers beware!