While Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson is getting closer to outer space, Google is sticking to the pavement with its latest experiment. The search giant is looking at new ways to help people use technology -- with robotic cars.
Indeed, Google is on a self-proclaimed quest to reduce traffic accidents, save time, and slash carbon emissions. The problem is serious. According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.2 million lives are lost every year in traffic accidents. Google believes it has the potential to cut that number in half, and proposes to change the way we use cars.
Google has developed a technology that drives a . Beyond saving lives, the ultimate goal is to create "highway trains of tomorrow" that cut energy consumption and allow vehicles to carry more people on major roads. This, Google thinks, could also help people make better use of the average 52 minutes spent commuting to and from work every day.
Robotic Cars in Action
Google has already revved up the experiment. Manned by trained operators, its automated cars recently drove from Google's Mountain View, Calif., campus to its Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. These robotic cars have even driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. Google has logged more than 140,000 miles in its robotics research experiment.
"Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors, and a laser range finder to 'see' other traffic, as well as detailed maps -- which we collect using manually driven vehicles -- to navigate the road ahead," Google Distinguished Software Engineer Sebastian Thrun wrote in the company's blog. "This is all made possible by Google's data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain."
To develop the robot-car technology, Google tapped some of the top DARPA Challenge engineers who were behind a series of automated-car races organized by the U.S. government. Those engineers include Chris Urmson, Mike Montemerlo, and Anthony Levandowski. Their work is on display in the National Museum of American History.
The Advertising Spin
As with many things Google, advertising is often at the heart of the matter. Is Google planning an elaborate strategy to advertise on cars? Sort of a 22nd century spin on the vehicle-wrapping craze? Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, doesn't think that's the main goal.
"I think this is Google investing in and developing technology that it thinks has considerable promise," Sterling said. "If it should come to market and if it's widely used, then there will be advertising opportunities, but I'm sure that Google isn't thinking about it in those terms -- at least not now. It's very premature."
Indeed, for now Google seems to be focused on safety. Thrun wrote that the cars are never unmanned. There is always a trained safety driver behind the wheel who can take over. Google also has an operator in the passenger seat to monitor the software.
"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," Thrun wrote. "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."