DETROIT – In its pursuit of developing a self-driving car, Google has written lines and lines of computer code to address all sorts of traffic situations. But it didn’t have a single line to specifically address an oddity it encountered.
A test car on its runs came across a woman wielding a broom while operating an electric wheel chair. She was doing rough figure eights in the roadway while chasing a duck.
“You can’t make stuff like this up,” says John Krafcik, CEO of Self-Driving Car Project Google.
Although no code had been written particularly addressing that scenario, “the car knew what to do,” Krafcik says at the Automotive News World Congress here held in conjunction with the North American International Auto Show.
The prototype on its own waited for the coast to clear and then proceeded on its way.
“It didn’t do what a human would have done in that situation: get out of the car and take a cellphone photo of the scene,” Krafcik says.
Google has logged about 13 million miles testing its self-driving prototypes that are occupied by engineer overseers who monitor progress and record information.
“We’ve come a long way,” Krafcik says of the 7-year project.
Google’s goal is to introduce autonomous cars to the world. Several automakers are working on the same thing.
Three elements are required for a truly autonomous vehicle to reach its full potential, he says.
One, it must be built for everyone, young and old, able and disabled. In the U.S., “79% of senior citizens live in car-dependent communities and 41% of disabled people work,” Krafcik says. A self-driving car would suit them well.
Two, “we’ve got to figure out a way to use it, because it is not science fiction anymore.” Safety concerns and legal hurdles remain high at this point.
Three, development requires partnerships. “No one goes this alone,” Krafcik says.
“Partnerships? We’re thinking about all sorts of things. We see tons of ways we can partner, although I have nothing specifically to announce today.”
Aside from offering the convenience of something like a work commute that allows a vehicle occupant to do something other drive, autonomous cars would slash traffic death and injury rates, he says.
About 33,000 traffic fatalities occur annually in the U.S. Globally, the number is a disturbing 1.2 million. “That’s the equivalent of a 737 crashing every hour, every day for a year,” Krafcik says.
He notes that one of the first things automotive pioneer Karl Benz did after building his first car in the 1880s was accidently drive it into a wall. It wasn’t intended as the world’s first crash test.
Google is expanding its range as its autonomous-car project racks up the miles in Texas and California. “We’re now doing snow driving in the mountains,” Krafcik says.