LONG BEACH, Calif. - Imagine being able to drive anywhere and not DO any of the actual driving. It wouldn't even require a chauffeur, just technology.
That's the future that Google is working towards with their self-driving car.
"We need them, and people want them," said the Google software engineer and the brains behind the project, Sebastian Thrun, before he gave me a hands-free demo at the TED conference.
"It also has a lot of societal benefits. Lots of people have accidents. If we can make cars safer, we can make driving much more convenient."
This is also a personal cause for Thrun. His own best friend died from a tragic car accident when he was 18 years old.
So how can a car technically drive itself? Thrun gave me the rundown:
"There's a hardware component to it ... where it can get signals to control the steering and the brake. There are also radar sensors, that work the exact way your adaptive cruise control works ... they keep the distance of the car in front of you at a fixed range. On top of the car is a special camera that measures how far things are away. The reason why it spins is that it sees in every single direction.
"The sensor feeds into the display. It's the car's own perception of the environment. It sees all the obstacles and the car uses that to avoid them. The big thing is AI, Artificial Intelligence, it's advanced software, it's machine learning, making the car really smart. As a Google car, it's a cloud computing car, so it has a lot of data in the cloud. We drive everything that the car drives first manually. Then record enormous amounts of data about the environment, and then we use this data to aid the car. For example, we know in advance where every stop sign is, where every traffic light is because of Google maps."
So what if roads and signs change? They redo the drive to manually get those changes, but that's something Thrun has said they're still working on. Currently, the car can only drive itself in the Bay Area and the major freeway system.
"This is a science project obviously, but eventually I think it should really change the driving experience. For example, you should be able to drive safely and work at the same time or text at the same time. People who can't drive today, like blind people or aging people, should be able to drive."
Watch the video below for the interview and my test ride:
TED is a prestigious yearly conference in Long Beach, CA bringing together some of the top innovators and leaders in the world for 5 days of talks and events. Read more of my posts from the conference: