Google omits the wheel with its driverless car technology | Science Fact Friday: Google Chauffeur

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Science Fact Friday champions today’s advancements that could turn yesterday’s Science Fiction into tomorrow’s science reality. Information presented here is for entertainment purposes only. We are not liable if your space elevator collapses.

Compared to Knight Rider, the new Google car looks more like Mr. Feeny, but the positive impact of transitioning to a society that embraces driverless car technology cannot be overstated.

On Science Fact Friday, when not making timely references to 80s television, I like to talk about timely technological advancements. Although it’s been in the making for a while now, the video Google released this week of its driverless car technology is the biggest, boldest statement yet. No steering wheel. No pedals. Two buttons: stop and go.

It’s been a big year already for driverless vehicles. Audi and BMW premiered prototypes at Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in April. Although, it wasn’t truly driverless. More like, for a few moments you can take your hand off the wheel without catastrophic results.

Google’s video was the equivalent of dropkicking the mic.

How It Works

Science Fact Friday - Driverless Car Technology - Google Chauffeur Prototype

To me the coolest thing about Google’s car is that it’s not just one car. Here, the most important piece of driverless car technology is actually the contraption on top of the car and the tech behind the scenes. It’s the Google Chauffeur system.

Google Chauffeur is the software onboard. It takes the 64-beam Velodyne LIDAR (Light Radar), which continuously maps the surrounding physical area, and compares it to pre-existing high-definition maps. From there, it’s magic, from what I understand, but it includes radar and GPS.

In movies like Minority Report, the cars run on tracks. But with this driverless car technology, the need for physical barriers disappears. Lines can become uncrossable boundaries with mere programming.

This is smart stuff. Sure, for us humans who think that refreshing a page is what fixes the Internet, it’s frightening to put our lives in the hands of some smart dude’s lasers. But those lasers know better than your puny eyeballs when they’re busy aimed at your text messages.

Unfortunately, these cars can’t go faster than 25 mph. In earlier prototypes, ones with a steering wheel, the top speed was not so limited, which made highway driving possible. This new prototype is intended for driving around town. Sort of like a little robot golf cart.

Google VP and Fellow Sabastian Thrun said an earlier version of the company’s fleet of cars had driven 140,000 miles back in 2011 during a TED talk. Google said recently that the fleet had traversed 500,000 miles without driver assistance, and it has a spotless record.

But back to that cool thing I mentioned earlier. Because Google isn’t cemented in the auto industry, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that they may consider a supplier position. This could greatly expedite the overhauling of our nation’s automobiles to a driverless model, should it take off. If Google could just lend its tech to Ford’s and Dodge’s assembly lines, just think of how quickly America’s roads would become safe from human error.


Science Fact Friday - Driverless Car Technology - Present - Flickr Commons

Fear is understandable even in the most forward-thinking individual when it comes to riding inside driverless cars. There is a little more involved than taking your hands off a bicycle’s handlebars for a laugh. There’s rolling and flipping and maiming and killing to be had with this much steel.

I want you to think about how manual your car is before you worry about it becoming too automatic in the future.

First, its transmission is probably an automatic. You don’t feed coal or wood into a furnace regularly; you have a fuel injection system. You aren’t pushing or pulling a walking beam like your Subaru is a pump trolley from O’ Brother Where Art Thou?; your pistons fire through their stages in lockstep, like your own beating heart, after the first spark of life from ignition. All without further instruction from you, besides the gas pedal.

Besides the BMW and Audi prototypes mentioned above, there are existing features on higher-end cars today that can seem like driverless cars. For instance, Mercedes-Benz PRE-SAFE, which has been around in some working form since 2003. Its standard functions include priming brakes and tightening seat belts when its onboard sensors detect a possible collision, among even more advanced things.

Mercedes-Benz is not the only car giant getting into automated automotives. The list includes GM and Volvo, among several others. Tesla’s Elon Musk has said his company is also working on driverless technology, possibly using radar instead of Google’s LIDAR method, predicting that they would have a system that could drive 90 percent of the time by 2016. And we’ve all seen demos of self-parking cars.

The Nevada, California, Florida, and the District of Columbia have allowed driverless cars on streets as long as the cars are being tested, meaning that the drive isn’t for private use. Even after driverless cars are technologically ready, there could still be tons of red tape to gnaw through at the state and federal levels, though I think it’s fair to say that everyone can see how cool the concept is, including the U.S. Department of Transportation.


Science Fact Friday - Driverless Car Technology - Future - Minority Report

So, what’s the point of all this? Yeah, it’s cool and it means you could take a nap while commuting to work, but why is Google and everyone so into driverless car technology?

We’ll get to safety in a bit, but think of efficiency. As Thrun said in the video above, a nation of sophisticated driverless cars could drive closer to each other in much more narrow lanes. Say goodbye to traffic jams and hello to Fred out the window to the left. In movies like Minority Report, one can see how orderly driverless car technology would make our roads.

Also, and this may just be me, but how great would it be if all of these cars were hooked up on the Internet so they could talk to one another, assuming hackers don’t make traffic jams their new Nyan Cat. When you’re trying to get over a lane, your car could just politely ask its neighbors to squeeze you in. You would seamlessly fill the gap they create. At that point, cars could become a sort of luxury mass transit.

But would driverless car technology rid the world of something essential to human nature?

It’s not something a scientist can confirm, but one could say moving from place to place is in our blood. Early humans were nomadic out of necessity, but we found ways to keep moving further even after we discovered agriculture. Maybe it’s our inherent curiosity, which leads to an inherent need to explore. We build cars, trains, planes, and spaceships to get away (and to come back).

On the one hand, driverless car technology could provide people who would otherwise not be able to use a car on their own, such as the blind. For drivers who enjoy getting behind the wheel, it might be disconcerting to have a car do everything, especially if there’s not even a wheel. Having to pick a destination beforehand and politely sit back as a computer decides how to get there may be maddening, or at the very least may require an adjustment period for those born before widespread adoption of driverless car technology.

In the end, we just have to ask ourselves, is it worth losing the freedom of the open road in order to rid the world of drunk drivers?



The U.S. lost an estimated 32,850 lives due to traffic accidents last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for everyone ages 11 through 27. In 2012, crashes reported to the police totaled more than 5.5 million

Human error is the cause 90 to 100 percent of the time.

If machismo is really a deal breaker, I’m sure it’d be fairly simple to slap a muscle car-sized body kit on one of these scrunched Google cars to make it sexy. By the time driverless cars become the standard, you could probably just blow up an inner tube in that shape and rest assured it’d never be crash tested.

One last question: can it be programmed to do donuts in an empty parking lot?

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