January 31, 2014
"Google's Self-Driving Car, the Justin Bieber of the car world"
By Jeremy Thomas, Contra Costa Times
LIVERMORE -- A crowd of anxious high school students, Girl Scouts, parents and the curious formed a circle around the white luxury SUV. Eyes aglow and full of awe, the gawkers snapped pictures and craned their necks as if Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift were about to emerge from its doors.
The reaction wasn't unusual for Google staff software engineer Mike Montemerlo, a member of a team developing Google's Self-Driving Car. When the Stanford University alum takes the hybrid Lexus -- one of about a dozen such vehicles in Google's fleet -- out for a spin, the car is the star. "People have a very intuitive understanding of driving," Montemerlo said. "I think they identify with these cars, and we're super excited and we're happy to see they're excited, too." When Montemerlo spoke at Livermore's Bankhead Theater on Tuesday, he brought the car along. Like a modern-day Edison unveiling the light bulb, he was peppered with questions: How does it work? Is it safe? If it gets pulled over for speeding, who gets the ticket? John Breneman, an engineer at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, had his curiosity piqued enough to buy a ticket for the talk and pondered how the car can discriminate between obstacles and everyday objects. "You see them on the road and wonder what makes it tick," Breneman said. "To make something like this work you need to solve a lot of little problems."
It works, Montemerlo said, by stacking layers of data collected from its spinning, rooftop-mounted lasers, a front-facing camera, highly sensitive GPS, radar, and sensors to form a living, breathing map of the territory, with which the onboard computer can define and navigate a safe route. "We all have robots parked in our garage, but instead of our robots driving us to work, we're driving the robots to work," Montemerlo said. "The missing piece is software."
On first glance, the car's interior looks normal, except for the almost comic-sized red button on the console -- a kill switch allowing a human to take over in case of glitches or computer failure. For now, a real person must be in the driver's seat at all times along with a safety operator, but that will likely change.
Of all the reasons for a future full of self-driving vehicles, chief among them, Montemerlo said, is safety. More than 30,000 auto-related deaths occur in the United States each year, he said, a vast majority of them caused by human error.
The technology, according to Montemerlo, not only has promise for convenience -- a commuter could surf the Web, make phone calls or nap while the car does the chauffeuring -- but also for making efficient use of road space and allowing those who can't drive, such as the visually impaired or elderly, regain their mobility.
The potential resonated with Debbie Lindeman, a theater volunteer.
"The worst part of aging is giving up your independence when you can't drive anymore," she said. "This is so hopeful."
Montemerlo cautioned the future is rife with challenges. Much like human drivers, autonomous cars have difficulty navigating in heavy rain, snow and fog. Also problematic is the unexpected. While computers are excellent at interpreting data and generating correct responses, they lack the "common sense" perception humans have about anomalies, like odd-shaped vehicles, construction zones and the bizarre things drivers can do. Despite the technical and legal work ahead, Montemerlo said self-driving cars could be on the road, alongside traditional manned vehicles, in the next 10-20 years. "I don't know what the product is going to look like," he said, "but I hope that in the not-to-distant future, you'll see the actual effect of this work on real cars."