/// Adventures in Google Self-Driving Cars: Pizza Delivery, Scavenger Hunts, and Avoiding Deer

November 18, 2013  |  All Things Digital


After 500,000 miles of road tests, Google’s self-driving car team gave New Yorker writer Burkhard Bilger unusually deep access for a profile this week . It’s still unclear whether the larger idea of autonomous cars will work at all — the most optimistic estimate seems to be that they will come to market in five to 10 years. But self-driving cars are what put Google on the map as a company that tries to make science fiction into reality, so the tale of how they came to be is compelling. The hero of Bilger’s story is 33-year-old engineer Anthony Levandowski, who joined Google after building a self-driving motorcycle for the DARPA Grand Challenge (though it sounds like that didn’t work all that well). Levandowski was toiling away on Google Street View with the more-famous inventor/professor Sebastian Thrun before the two of them got the go-ahead from Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to start working on self-driving cars. What made the difference? A TV show producer’s wacky idea for a stunt, believe it or not. From Bilger’s piece: “In February of 2008, Levandowski got a call from a producer of “Prototype This!,” a series on the Discovery Channel. Would he be interested in building a self-driving pizza delivery car? Within five weeks, he and a team of fellow Berkeley graduates and other engineers had retrofitted a Prius for the purpose. They patched together a guidance system and persuaded the California Highway Patrol to let the car cross the Bay Bridge—from San Francisco to Treasure Island. It would be the first time an unmanned car had driven legally on American streets.” The successful bridge crossing earned Page and Brin’s go-ahead within a few months, according to Thrun. Then the two Google co-founders, “like boys plotting a scavenger hunt,” gave the self-driving car team a set of 10 100-mile itineraries. “The roads wound through every part of the Bay Area— from the leafy lanes of Menlo Park to the switchbacks of Lombard Street. If the driver took the wheel or tapped the brakes even once, the trip was disqualified.” The team completed all 10 in a year and a half. There’s a lot more to the story, but the real question is, what’s next for the self-driving car? There are challenges on multiple fronts, now that the scavenger-hunt phase is over. 1) Jumping over legal hurdles. 2) Figuring out how to bring the cars to market, given carmakers are allergic to the word “self driving” (though they’re OK with smaller and subtler tweaks, where machine smarts help drivers out). And 3) Making next technological leaps forward in sensors and machine learning.

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Adventures in Google Self-Driving Cars: Pizza Delivery, Scavenger Hunts, and Avoiding Deer


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