Friday, 27 July 2012

The Horseless Carriage Becomes the Driverless Car

Toronto, Ontario. The annual Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence conference ended yesterday. For me, Thursday’s talk by Sebastian Thrun (Stanford University and Google) was a highlight: Google’s self-driving car project. The bottom line: this technology isn’t science fiction any more. More than a century ago, the introduction of the horseless carriage dramatically changed the world. The next step in this evolution, the driverless car, promises to be no less impactful.

Sebastian is passionate about building robotic systems for every-day use. For a decade now, he has been concentrating on self-driving cars. Seeing a car pull up beside you with no one in the driver’s seat would be an unnerving experience for most, but for Sebastian it’s a daily experience. In 2005, his team won the U.S. Department of Defense Grand Challenge, having a computer-controlled car successfully travel 212 kilometers on California desert roads. His team came second in the 2007 Grand Challenge, where the car had to navigate through a mock-up downtown area. Since 2010 he has been working with Google on realizing his dream of turning this technology into something that will change the world.

In 2006 I saw him give a presentation on his work. It was interesting, but the road (so to speak) from where he was to where he wanted to be was long and the research problems to be solved, hard. Six years later, the only word I can use to describe where he’s at is “stunning.” The advances that have been made are truly impressive, suggesting that the technology is almost ready for prime time. Sebastian says it’s at least a decade way from being widely deployed. More on this later.

The Google car is being extensively used in the San Francisco and Silicon Valley area. To date it has 320,000 kilometers of accident-free driving. Can you make the same claim? Sebastian showed numerous impressive videos of the car doing its thing, such as driving down San Francisco’s (in)famous Lombard Street, negotiating downtown traffic, and easily traversing highways. What made this even more impressive was that demos showed the car performing well in a variety of difficult situations, including day and night (day turns out to be harder because of the sun), in the presence of pedestrians, and even through a construction zone (lanes shifted). In the latter case, although the car uses GPS maps, it has the ability to improvise when it comes across signs that force it to deviate from its planned route. Impressive!

The technology has been added to a handful of smaller vehicles (golf carts). He showed a video where a person uses their phone to request a ride. The call is routed to an available vehicle that, upon receiving the request uses your GPS coordinates to automatically drive to you. Imagine how this could change your life. You can be chauffeured anywhere, sans the chauffer.

Sebastian revealed some interesting details on the car’s performance. It tends to drive slower than other vehicles on the road (not a surprise given safety concerns), prefers an interior lane (the vision system works better if there’s left and right feedback), does less braking and less acceleration than humans, and maintains a safer distance between cars (which helps reduce the chance of an accident).

What remains to be done? Lots, mostly special cases. For example, the research team has not addressed the problem of snow and ice. They admit that their work has been California-centric. Another example he cited was a policeman on the road directing traffic. This situation is challenging since the software needs to distinguish a policeman from a pedestrian, and understand that the hand gestures have meaning. They also have problems with sudden surprises, such as an animal running across the road. He did not mention a variety of other possible situations, such as getting a flat tire, hitting a pothole at high speed, or being crowded by another vehicle (does the car honk its horn?). Every one of them has to be addressed and then thoroughly tested.

Sebastian believes that it will take at least a decade before we will see widespread use of driverless cars on the road. Part of the reason is the many uncommon circumstances that need to be addressed. However, the bigger hurdles have nothing to do with technology: political, legal, and psychological matters all stand in the way. As well, insurance companies will have to weigh in.

The implications of this technology if/when it becomes commercially viable are transformative, some of which include:
  •  improved quality of life (the one-hour daily commute becomes usable time);
  •  fewer accidents (data strongly supports this case);
  • increased freedom for people with mobility-related disabilities; and
  •  better traffic throughput (less need for increased road infrastructure).

A high-reliability self-driving car will dramatically change the world as we know it. I have seen the future and it’s exciting, coming much sooner than I would have expected, going to have enormous societal benefits, and will be transformative.

It’s not often that I come away truly excited about technology. A single research talk has made this a memorable day for me. I will not soon forget the excitement I felt being in the audience for Sebastian Thrun’s wonderful talk. 


  1. H. James Hoover30 July 2012 at 18:38

    Given the appalling ability of Edmonton drivers, anything would be a welcome improvement. We don't have elevator operators for the same reason - the automation is better than humans. Although interestingly, in Europe there are all kinds of elevators where you have to open and close the door yourself.

    The key thing with all automated systems is for the "operator" to maintain situation awareness in order to act when things go wrong (see the books by Charles Perrow and Nancy Levison). The Air France crash was just the most recent high-profile example. But you have to maintain situation awareness regardless of the degree of automation, and many people simply don't have the professional attitude to do so when driving.

    Driving is such a colossal waste of time, that I'm all for robot cars when they are ready. It would combine the best of public transit (being able to relax or work during the commute) with the best of car ownership (being able to avoid rubbing shoulders with the masses). Plus, it's like having your own personal driver, and you could have the benefits of a multi-car familiy with just one car. But they better be good enough that I don't have to "operate" them, that is they will have to require no more supervision than I do with the human bus or subway driver.

  2. The Google car allows the user to take control by touching the brake, accelerator, or steering wheel. This, of course, presumes that the user is sitting in the driver's seat and is paying attention to the road.

  3. H. James Hoover31 July 2012 at 18:36

    An obvious thing to add is voice recognition and response to the typical passengers' not so informative cries of: arrgh, lookout, it's a red!, ...

    "I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming like his passengers in the car."