City Streets? Google's Self-Driving Car Project Says, "Yeah, We Got This"

April 29, 2014

Getting an autonomous car to navigate highway traffic? That's old hat. Even automakers that haven't announced plans for self-driving cars offer safety features like adaptive cruise control and lane assist, which provide a degree of autonomy on the interstate.

But what about on city streets? How can autonomous cars cope with the never-ending construction, the texting pedestrians, and the drivers to whom turn signals remain pointy little mysteries?

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We don't have the answers to those questions, but apparently, Google does. It's released a new video explaining how recent upgrades to its highly touted self-driving car allow it to maneuver over, under, through, and around many of the obstacles that cities throw its way.

According to spokesperson Courtney Hohne, Google's autonomous-car software has learned to recognize a range of traffic signs, including stop signs held by crossing guards. With luck, advances like that will help Google meet its goal of bringing autonomous cars to the market by the year 2017. That's the same timeline that several other automakers have adopted, but well ahead of the schedule predicted by many analysts.

That said, there's still plenty of work that Google must do before its autonomous cars are ready for the road. In the video above, you'll see that Google's car can handle driving in a range of scenarios, but it's programmed to drive so defensively, it sometimes causes problems for other drivers. For example, when approaching a railroad track, the car comes to a full stop, waiting for the cars ahead of it to clear the tracks before proceeding. While that's good driving practice, it's easy to see that a human would make it across the tracks faster because she'd be able to see that there are no trains in the area.

Other problems for Google's autonomous car include traffic regulations, which can vary from intersection to intersection, like whether or not vehicles can turn right on red. And the company hasn't yet developed sensors that can offer perfectly safe driving in rain and fog. But this announcement re-confirms what we've known for some time: autonomous cars are coming, whether we like it or not. 


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