Skip to main content

Google's self-driving car now smart enough to conquer the suburbs

Google has announced massive strides in its plans to have self-driving cars navigating the world's roads in the near future, according to the director of their smart cars project.

Google provided an accompanying video to demonstrate the new capabilities of its self-driving autos, and how well it had adapted to the new challenge of suburban driving.

While the cars have excelled at navigating the relatively straightforward task of motorway driving, the difficulty involved in driving through leafy suburbs full of pedestrians, cyclists and children playing ball games has until now been too much for the program to handle. But all that is about to change.

"We still have lots of problems to solve," director of Google's self-driving car project, Chris Urmson, said in a blog post, "including teaching the car to drive more streets in Mountain View before we tackle another town, but thousands of situations on city streets that would have stumped us two years ago can now be navigated autonomously."

Now bicyclists signalling to move across a lane of traffic, for instance, are no problem for Google's system. The cars have similarly learned to navigate railroad crossings, parked cars protruding into the road, multiple pedestrians and cyclists entering an intersection, and orange traffic cones around a construction zone.

"A mile of city driving is much more complex than a mile of freeway driving," Urmson said, "with hundreds of different objects moving according to different rules of the road in a small area."

"We've improved our software so it can detect hundreds of distinct objects simultaneously - pedestrians, buses, a stop sign held up by a crossing guard, or a cyclist making gestures that indicate a possible turn," Urmson said.

"A self-driving vehicle can pay attention to all of these things in a way that a human physically can't - and it never gets tired or distracted."

Google has taken much of the responsibility of introducing the public to the idea of self-driving cars, with many still distrusting the technology.

They could well be on the right side of history, though. According to analyst firm IHS, sales of self-driving cars will rise from 230,000 in 2025 to 11.8 million in 2035, and all cars on the road in 2050 will be self-driving.

"Accident rates will plunge to near zero for self-driving cars [SDCs]," said IHS analyst Egil Juliussen. "Traffic congestion and air pollution per car should also decline because SDCs can be programmed to be more efficient in their driving patterns."

Other auto-manufacturers are piling on the self-driving bandwagon, though – Nissan, General Motors and Ford are all looking at the potential of self-driving cars.

"Our vehicles have now logged nearly 700,000 autonomous miles," Urmson argued, "and with every passing mile we're growing more optimistic that we're heading toward an achievable goal—a vehicle that operates fully without human intervention."

In a patent published in January 2014 by the US Patent and Trademark Office, Google outlined a mobile/web app that would give free taxi rides from self-driving taxis.

Elsewhere, the US military contractor Lockheed Martin in February announced a successful test of autonomous, self-driving convoys for soldiers.