Google's fleet of robotic Toyota Priuses has now logged more than 190,000 miles, driving in city traffic, busy highways, and mountainous roads with only occasional human intervention, according to the "Automaton" blog at ieee Spectrum, a neat website that's sort of for electrical engineers but has very cool information others can enjoy, too. (Bionic eyes, anyone?)
This post is from a few months ago, but I just saw it this week while screening the American Business Media's Jesse H. Neal journalism awards, sort of the "Pulitzer Prize of business journalism" for magazines aimed at businesses as diverse as trucking, law, swimming pool installers and healthcare.
As the ieee blog explains, a laser range finder mounted on the roof of the car generates a detailed 3D map of the environment. "The car then combines the laser measurements with high-resolution maps of the world, producing different types of data models that allow it to drive itself while avoiding obstacles and respecting traffic laws."
There also are "four radars, mounted on the front and rear bumpers, that allow the car to "see" far enough to be able to deal with fast traffic on freeways; a camera, positioned near the rear-view mirror, that detects traffic lights; and a GPS, inertial measurement unit, and wheel encoder, that determine the vehicle's location and keep track of its movements."
The car also has the benefit of having been driven by Google engineers along the route at least once to gather data about the surroundings. And there's always a "safety driver" behind the wheel, just in case...
Here's some cool video from TED.com:
So what's the point? The folks at Google "are convinced that smarter vehicles could help make transportation safer and more efficient: Cars would drive closer to each other, making better use of the 80% to 90% of empty space on roads, and also form speedy convoys on freeways. They would react faster than humans to avoid accidents, potentially saving thousands of lives."
Of course, we're already seeing some of this type of technology being used every day in trucks -- not to replace the driver, but to supplement his senses and reflexes. There are systems that can slow and even stop a truck in the case of an obstacle in front of it, warn drivers if they're drifting out of their lane, and prevent rollovers.