Self-driving cars mean business … finally!

In October, 1967, Popular Science promised us self-driving cars … by 1985 "or perhaps sooner." The Urbmobile, developed with a $100,000 grant from the U.S. government, was to revolutionize mass transit by guiding cars using 'power rails' embedded in the road.


"You gulp the last of your coffee, wipe the egg off your chin, and dash for the door. In the driveway sits a vehicle about the size and shape of a Volkswagen. Beside the door on the driver's side is a handleless hatch. Beneath the car, unseen, are four flanged wheels of smaller diameter than the car's tires.

As you slide away from the curb, the sound of the electric drive motor hardly rises above a whisper. A few blocks from home, you steer the car into a special lane, and pull a lever under the dash. The front wheels lock in straight-ahead position. Simultaneously the side-hatch door slides back and an electric third-rail folds out. It makes contact with a power rail, the flanged wheels roll onto the rails of a track, and your car accelerates at a controlled rate of 0.3g. You twirls a dial until you see "5th Street" appear in a small window. Seconds later, as your car enters a main guideway at exactly 60 m.p.h., you open the paper and scan the news.

Righty-o. The hare-brainedness of third-rails on the highway is now readily apparent to us, if not to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's beancounters.

Come 2010, however, we're finally getting there. Darpa's self-driven "grand challenge," served as proof of concept for the 'in-car AI' approach (as opposed to Urbmobile's infrastructural one) that surely seemed hopelessly science-fictional until the day it became a reality. But that approach also embodies the steps car manufacturers have been taking for years to assist drivers: lane drift warning systems, automatic parking, stop sign spotters and drowsiness detectors have long been in the luxury automaker's arsenal of safety features.

All these measures center on computing power. Given that, it's no wonder that Google won headlines recently with its follow-on from the DARPA research: a secret fleet of self-driving cars. Each equipped with a human driver, just in case, they were developed with business in mind: the company is now among the most highly invested in mapping systems, and it knows more about the nooks and crannies of America's roads than just about anyone.

So we have developed technology for cars that can drive themselves. Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They've driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research.

Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to "see" other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Google's data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.

Google points to traffic death statistics, and when these technologies enter the auto industry in earnest, that'll doubtless be the marketing angle of choice. But they can't get out of the press release without at least a nod to bygone fictions, promising the "highway trains of tomorrow" in what can only be a reference to the 'third rail' promised nearly half a century ago.

Of course, the "unseen wheels" concept remains a pervasive metaphor in the self-driven dream: "It's 2010 for goodness sake!" writes CNET's Antuan Goodwin. "Where the hell are the self-driving cars?"