You may have heard of Google's autonomous Priuses that have clocked more than a 190,000 miles on the open road, but you may not be as familiar with the company's fleet of self-driving golf carts.
The technology giant has been tinkering with a fleet of autonomous golf carts that some engineers use to travel between campus buildings. Users request these low-speed vehicles online, and at the scheduled time, the carts automatically depart the parking garage to meet the passenger at their designated pick up zone. Passengers can drive the cart themselves, or let the system ferry them to their destination so they can focus on work. After they exit the vehicle, the carts park themselves--no valet needed, no tip required.
Google showed off these autonomous golf carts at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in San Francisco last month. Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun and Google engineer Chris Urmson explained in detail the technology used in the self-driving vehicles.
When it comes to creating a car that can drive itself, GPS isn't enough to figure out where the car is and where it is going. GPS technology can be off by several meters, and signals can be spotty in dense urban areas, where you'd want accuracy the most. Google's Priuses are equipped with a 64-beam laser that can build a 3D digital blueprint of their surrounding environment. This information combined with high-resolution maps created in advance of travel routes help the vehicle figure out where it is on the road.
Radars, sensors, wheel encoders, and GPS are also used to tell the Prius where it is, where it needs to go, and where to expect traffic. Detailed mapping data helps the autonomous Prius figure out which objects along the road or at an intersection are stationary, and where it should expect objects, such as pedestrians, to move.
PCMag.com reported that Google teams have successfully traveled 1,000 miles in autonomous Priuses without driver intervention, and now Google is upping the challenge to 1 million miles.
Google's co-founder Sergey Brin told PCMag.com that the technology still needs a lot more R&D. But even when the technology is ready, the public might not be. Self-driving cars are not legal in most states. Nevada, which has approved a bill promising to develop rules by 2012, is the only state to entertain the idea, although no drafts of the regulations have surfaced.
GM says that it also is working on autonomous vehicles, specifically the EN-V two seater electric pod, but said it won't be ready until 2020. London Heathrow airport is using autonomous pods to shuttle passengers between the terminal and a parking lot, but the pods travel on dedicated pathways and don't encounter traffic.
For a more elaborate explanation of all the components that make up Google's autonomous vehicles, such as how they advance through unprotected street crossings, you can watch the first two videos of the presentation:
Source: IEEE Spectrum