Tests of Google’s autonomous vehicles in California and Nevada suggests they already outperform human drivers.
By Tom Simonite, October 25, 2013
Road trip: This car is among those Google has modified to run without a human driver.
Data gathered from Google’s self-driving Prius and Lexus cars shows
that they are safer and smoother when steering themselves than when a
human takes the wheel, according to the leader of Google’s
Chris Urmson made those claims today at a robotics conference
in Santa Clara, California. He presented results from two studies of
data from the hundreds of thousands of miles Google’s vehicles have
logged on public roads in California and Nevada.
One of those analyses showed that when a human was behind the wheel,
Google’s cars accelerated and braked significantly more sharply than
they did when piloting themselves. Another showed that the cars’
software was much better at maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle
ahead than the human drivers were.
“We’re spending less time in near-collision states,” said Urmson.
“Our car is driving more smoothly and more safely than our trained
In addition to painting a rosy picture of his vehicles’ autonomous
capabilities, Urmson showed a new dashboard display that his group has
developed to help people understand what an autonomous car is doing and
when they might want to take over. “Inside the car we’ve gone out of our
way to make the human factors work,” he said.
Although that might suggest the company is thinking about how to
translate its research project into something used by real motorists,
Urmson dodged a question about how that might happen. “We’re thinking
about different ways of bringing it to market,” he said. “I can’t tell
you any more right now.”
Urmson did say that he is in regular contact with automakers. Many of
those companies are independently working on self-driving cars
themselves (see “Driverless Cars Are Further Away Than You Think”).
Google has been testing its cars on public roads since 2010 (see “Look, No Hands”), always with a human in the driver’s seat who can take over if necessary.
Urmson dismissed claims that legal and regulatory problems pose a
major barrier to cars that are completely autonomous. He pointed out
that California, Nevada, and Florida have already adjusted their laws to
allow tests of self-driving cars. And existing product liability laws
make it clear that a car’s manufacturer would be at fault if the car
caused a crash, he said. He also said that when the inevitable accidents
do occur, the data autonomous cars collect in order to navigate will
provide a powerful and accurate picture of exactly who was responsible.
Urmson showed data from a Google car that was rear-ended in traffic
by another driver. Examining the car’s annotated map of its surroundings
clearly showed that the Google vehicle smoothly halted before being
struck by the other vehicle.
“We don’t have to rely on eyewitnesses that can’t act be trusted as
to what happened—we actually have the data,” he said. “The guy around us
wasn’t paying enough attention. The data will set you free.”