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Google's self-driving car takes blind man for a spin

Google's self-driving car takes blind man for a spin

By Alex Larrabee | Posted - Mar. 29, 2012 at 2:41 p.m.



This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

SALT LAKE CITY -- Studies by the World Health Organization have estimated that more than 1.2 million lives are lost due to road accidents every year.

Google wants to change that.

Since 2010, the company has been working on an autonomous vehicle, or "self-driving" car. Led by Google engineer Sebastian Thrun, the team has consisted of some of the most reputable engineers from around the world gathered from relevant industries.

Many of the engineers arrived from the DARPA Challenges, a series of autonomous vehicle races organized by the U.S. government. Such engineers included Chris Urmson, technical team leader of the 2007 Urban Challenge winning CMU team, and software lead Mike Montemerlo, who led the Stanford team to a win in the 2005 Grand Challenge.

The vehicle has been tested extensively, having amassed over 200,000 miles of computer-led driving so far. However, Google says that the vehicle still has a long way to go before we can expect to see it at a dealership.

Steven Mahan, along with a couple Google technicians, make a quick pit stop while taking a spin in the self-driving car.
Steven Mahan, along with a couple Google technicians, make a quick pit stop while taking a spin in the self-driving car. (Photo: Google)

A post to Google's blog said that "there's much left to design and test, but we've now safely completed more than 200,000 miles of computer-led driving, gathering great experiences and an overwhelming number of enthusiastic supporters."

The video shows Steve Mahan, a legally blind man invited by Google to participate in a drive along a specially programmed route. Google employees and safety techs join Steve as they make a trip to Taco Bell and pick up Steve's dry cleaning before heading back home - all without Steve ever touching the wheel.

"We organized this test as a technical experiment," read the post, "but we think it's also a promising look at what autonomous technology may one day deliver if rigorous technology and safety standards can be met."

The self-driving car works using a combination of pre-programmed maps, radar, lasers, and cameras. Cameras and lasers mounted on the car read traffic signals and detect the presence of other vehicles, persons and objects on and around the road. Imagine combining a self-aware GPS with the back-up camera on your SUV, then multiply that by real-time laser grid displays and perpetual image retention. Then exponentially incorporate the power of Google.

"Before any route is driven using our automated technology, we first drive the roads ourselves using equipment - such as cameras, laser sensors and radar - that helps us create a detailed digital map of all of the features of the road," said Jay Nancarrow, a spokesperson for Google. "By mapping things like lane markers and traffic signs, the software in the car becomes familiar with the environment and its characteristics in advance."


"While this project is very much in the experimental stage, it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future thanks to advanced computer science. And that future is very exciting."

Safety was and remains a primary concern for Google as these tests are performed. Each road test was performed in a controlled environment, and a human operator was always present behind the wheel, prepared for a technical malfunction, along with a trained operator monitoring the software from the passenger's seat - both of which can be seen in the video riding along with Steve.

"We've always been optimistic about technology's ability to advance society, which is why we have pushed so hard to improve the capabilities of self-driving cars beyond where they are today," Google wrote in its official blog back in 2010. "While this project is very much in the experimental stage, it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future, thanks to advanced computer science. And that future is very exciting."

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Alex Larrabee

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