Google says that cars it has programmed to drive themselves have started to master the navigation of city streets and the challenges they bring, from jaywalkers to weaving bicyclists — a critical milestone for any commercially available self-driving car technology.
And despite the progress over the past year, the cars have plenty of learning to do before 2017, when the company hopes to get the technology to the public.
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According to AP, none of the traditional automakers has been so bullish. Instead, they have rolled out features incrementally, including technology that brakes and accelerates in stop-and-go traffic or keeps cars in their lanes.
“I think the Google technology is great stuff. But I just don’t see a quick pathway to the market,” said David Alexander, a senior analyst with Navigant Research who specializes in autonomous vehicles.
His projection is that self-driving cars will not be commercially available until 2025. Google’s self-driving cars already can navigate freeways comfortably, albeit with a driver ready to take control. In a new blog post, the project’s leader said test cars now can handle thousands of urban situations that would have stumped them a year or two ago.
“We’re growing more optimistic that we’re heading toward an achievable goal — a vehicle that operates fully without human intervention,” project director Chris Urmson wrote. The benefits would include fewer accidents, since in principle machines can drive more safely than people.
Urmson’s post was the company’s first official update since 2012 on a project that is part of the company’s secretive Google X lab.
In initial iterations, human drivers would be expected to take control if the computer fails. The promise is that, eventually, there would be no need for a driver. Passengers could read, daydream, even sleep — or work — while the car drives.
That day is still years away, cautioned Navigant’s Alexander.
For now, Google is focused on the predictably common tasks of city driving.
To deal with cyclists, engineers have taught the software to predict likely behavior based on thousands of encounters during the approximately 10,000 miles the cars have driven autonomously on city streets, according to Google spokeswoman Courtney Hohne.
The software plots the car’s path accordingly — then reacts if something unexpected happens. Stay tuned...