Google's Krafcik talks self-driving vehicle development

  • 27-Mar-2016 10:37 EDT
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The market readiness of self-driving vehicles is a "process, not a point in time," said Google car project CEO John Krafcik at a recent NY forum. 

As automakers add advanced driver-assist systems to conventional passenger vehicles, they are developing one path to the fully autonomous vehicle—but not the only one. So, the inevitable question: When will fully self-driving cars arrive and what will they be like?

Google, with years of experience in this area, has predicted as early as 2020. Work underway was described  by the project's CEO, John Krafcik, who spoke at the recent J.D. Power/NADA/NY Auto Show forum.

Many people envision getting into their fully-autonomous cars, sitting back and perhaps taking a nap, reading the latest news on a tablet or even eating breakfast during a drive to work. But there's an application that is likely to come sooner, and it promises to create a whole new market: a self-driving car for the handicapped, visually impaired, and elderly who no longer can drive safely. That was the vision that excited Peter Welch, President of NADA (National Automobile Dealers Association), who also spoke at the forum.

Short range mobility 

Krafcik described readiness of self-driving cars as a "process, not a point in time." So at first, as Welch envisions, the cars might provide mobility for people who can be satisfied with a shorter range. As the process improves, the range and top speed should increase and the potential market should grow correspondingly.

However, Krafcik said Google's 25 mph (40 km/h) speed-limited vehicle is easier for the development process because kinetic energy at 35 mph (56 kph) is twice that at 25 mph.

For many people who are no longer able to drive, the mobility afforded by a self-driving car would justify its ownership. At this time Google precisely maps routes for its test cars, so a similar practice could give owners a list of trips to take, with new ones added as needed and possible.

The Google-developed cars are EVs without steering wheels or pedals. Because they're limited to 25 mph, they fit the description of smart "neighborhood cars." They could serve relatively large areas with adult communities, many of which are located close to shopping and medical facilities. Owners in such areas also could be satisfied with slow-but-safe personal transportation suited primarily for generally good-to-fair weather.  

Google also has a fleet of Lexus RX450h's, modified for the self-driving system, and with steering wheel and pedals removed.

Predictive software 

The Google software is written to be predictive, that is to know what everything movable around the car will do. According to Krafcik, it generally will predict a cyclist will ride by and a pedestrian will cross the street.  So the car will slow to a safe speed and move away from the cyclist, then yield to the pedestrian. But road situations can be complex.  On Halloween, for example, costumed children in the street were a new experience, he explained, and Google rightly decided children can be more unpredictable than adults, particularly when in costume.

The ability to deal with emergency vehicles on the road was addressed early by Google.  It has a "library" of various sirens (a fire truck siren has a long wail, an ambulance a series of short shrills) and as soon as the car "hears" the siren it will stop to let it through an intersection.  If the vehicle is coming from behind, it will slow down and pull over.

Google's official position is that "we will be ready for some people and road environments first, and as our technology improves, it will be available to more people."

Krafcik quipped that Google is "all about data and measurements," noting that company engineers have developed hundreds of tests, in addition to logging over 1.5 M miles in real-world road testing since 2009. The company each day performs 3 M miles of simulation.

The Google project began by using a flat section of CA Route 101, with volunteering employees as passenger/drivers.

Self-contained software 

A noteworthy aspect of the Google project, Krafcik told the forum, is that presently all the software is self-contained. "Our autonomous cars use on-board processing power, nothing from the cloud," he said. "We are not relying on communication via V2V (vehicle to vehicle) or V2X (vehicle to infrastructure) because either can go down."

Such cars seem to involve more complexity than a full-range autonomous car with a capable driver available for special situations, such as sudden changes in weather, highway blockages and high road speeds. However, the opposite may be more likely to be true, because of the limits on its use.

The two-passenger Google self-driving cars have been rolling along streets in Mountain View, CA, near Google HQ, in Austin, TX, and, to increase experience with rain, in Kirkland, WA.  In addition, Krafcik said, Google recently began testing in snow, but he provided no details.

The cars' dome-shaped sensors have what was described as the equivalent of a windscreen wiper, but in general the weather has more effect on cameras than lasers, as the latter can "see through" the raindrops. At this stage, if the rain is severe, visibility is poor and /or road conditions are slippery, the cars slow down and may even pull to the side of the road until conditions improve.

Prediction was wrong 

No cars are totally accident free, even if that's the dream of self-driving car proponents, and certainly not with driver-operated vehicles also on the road. In a widely-reported accident last February in Mountain View, the Google car pulled into the right lane to prepare for a right turn on red. It detected sandbags near a storm drain blocking its path. So it stopped, let several cars pass by, then angled out to pull around. In doing so, it "predicted" a slow approaching bus would yield, but it didn't and a minor collision resulted.

Google is not working solo on its project. A long list of suppliers are assisting, including Bosch, Continental, FRIMO, LG Electronics, Prefix, RCO, and Roush Industries.

Legal issues must  be sorted out, Krafcik maintained. California requires a licensed driver behind the wheel. NHTSA's interpretation has been that with what the agency considers to be the highest level of autonomy (Level 4, or "L4"), robotic controls can count as a driver, with financial responsibility assumed by the owner—or if an accident is caused by a defect, by the manufacturer. 

There are NGOs (non-governmental organizations) such as California-based Consumer Watchdog, that have objected to this. So the autonomous car will need a very high level of "proof."  However, the potentially large market for a continuously improving lower-speed self-driving car, for a broadly-defined "neighborhood" area, is recognized, and so seems to be likely the first to come.

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