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Google's Self-driving Car Tested at Virginia Tech

September 4, 2013
self-driving care
Automated car (file photo)

Google has teamed up with Virginia Tech researchers as it works to bring its vision of cars that can drive themselves one step closer to reality.

The technology giant has spent the past month in Blacksburg putting amateur test subjects behind the wheel of one of its self-driving cars at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute's Smart Road. The drivers were confronted with a range of scenarios and judged on how they responded.

Semiautonomous cars switch control back and forth between the driver and the vehicle. Among other questions, Google wanted to know how well people were able to manage these transitions.

The research has been a collaboration involving the company, Tech and government organizations such as the U.S. Department of Transportation. Google supplied the car, Tech the expertise and the DOT $2 million worth of funding.

"It's been a great partnership," said Susan Molinari, Google's vice president of public policy and government affairs. "We're so proud of the work that we're doing with you all to make the roads safer and more secure in the future."

On Tuesday, VTTI and Google hosted a carefully orchestrated media event to show off what their tricked-out Lexus can do. Barricades kept reporters from getting too close, as to not let anyone catch a glimpse of the secret sauce that lets the car drive itself like something out of a science fiction movie.

The car looked pretty standard, but had a spinning device on the roof that helps it keep track of where it is. It's equipped with laser range finders, radar and cameras to monitor its surroundings and react accordingly.

As for what's under the hood: That's still a secret.

The demonstration began with U.S. Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, and Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, taking a couple of test laps around Tech's closed track. The car showed off its ability to safely follow a human-driven vehicle and perform an emergency stop.

An engineer sat in the driver's seat the whole time, but he didn't intervene as the car navigated the road.

When it was over, Griffith quipped that the car is probably a better driver than he is.

Google and other research institutions have been captivated by the promise of self-driving cars for years. The technology went mainstream in 2010 when Google's first autonomous Toyota Prius started making its way around public roads in California.

Google has since built a handful of autonomous cars. Combined, they've safely driven 500,000 miles through public highways, according to company officials.

Goodlatte said he previously got to try one out in busy Washington, D.C., traffic. The car recognized street lights, knew to yield to pedestrians and even pulled over when a road wasn't wide enough for two cars to pass at the same time.

"To see it out here operating in more highway conditions really tells you that Google is a pioneer in an area most people don't think about Google as doing," he said. "But it's technology that is going to revolutionize transportation, the automotive industry and perhaps most importantly of all ... it's going to enhance automobile safety and I think efficiency as well."


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