State of the art of self-driving cars on road today (Google, Ford, and Toyota)

I’ve been a fan of autonomous cars so when Google announced today that they had actually built and tested a self-driving car, that was quite cool news. Read the New York Times article about the self-driving Google car done by John Markoff. That is pretty cool. Google, itself, talked about the technology in a blog post.

Turns out I actually caught one of these cars driving on Freeway 280 in January, reports Techcrunch and, back in 2007, I interviewed one of the guys, Mike Montemerlo, who now works on the Google Car (it’s a fascinating interview, great look into an innovative mind and where he was going with this technology). I wondered why the Google guys braked suddenly to avoid my video camera. I had a feeling they were testing something secret, but couldn’t figure out what from just looking at the car from the outside.

But, did you know there are cars on the road today that get close to driving themselves? I own one of those, a 2010 Toyota Prius. In my car there’s radar that senses the road ahead and a camera that looks at lane markings. I filmed a video to show how it works. It even works on curvy roads. Now Google’s car goes a lot further because it has digital images and 3D maps of the road ahead and even more sensors and algorithms that let it even drive through intersections.

Check this video out:

Toyota isn’t the only one using assisted driving technlogies, either. Back in January I interviewed the head of safety at Ford, who showed me what its system does and how it can sense cars ahead on the road and help drivers avoid accidents.

A lot of people are afraid of these technologies, but already they have helped me avoid accidents. They can see cars ahead of you at night even if they don’t have their lights on. I’ve encountered that several times, very dangerous if they are driving slowly and you’re going faster. Also, if my car senses that it is about to get in an accident, it tugs on the seatbelts and pre-fires the brakes, which makes them ultra sensitive so that I can get more braking in before an accident (you really must watch the Ford interviews to understand how important that is).

To me, these technologies will save lives and let you do other things while driving. Maybe someday it’ll be legal to text and drive — but only if you have a self-driving car.

I’d pay a lot of money for an even better system. This would greatly improve my life — in just the 15 months since getting the Toyota I’ve put 26,000 miles on it. At 55 miles per hour that’s 472 hours of driving. I use my car’s computer more than my TV or nearly any other computer in my life. I’d be willing to spend $1,000 to $3,000 per year to make that experience better (the assisted driving technologies in my Toyota came as part of a $6,000 package, which includes better headlights, better audio system, self-parking tech, and the assisted cruise control, among other things).

That’s the business model behind these things. The trick is, can Google find a way to make them cheap enough?

I won’t buy a car without them now (our new Sienna minivan has the radar-assisted cruise control as well).

One thing. I don’t think we’ll see truly autonomous cars, like the Google ones, for quite some while. Why? Legal questions of responsibility. Plus, the Google car can’t drive on my street (it hasn’t been captured with a Google Mapping car yet) and just imagine that there’s a bug in the map, or something, that causes a driver to get killed.

I believe this is why my car will only gently nudge me back into the lane if I drift out of the lane. It requires the driver to stay fully engaged in the process of driving, even though it is assisting the driver. The legal questions of letting a driver go to sleep while a car is moving down the road are just too great for 2010. I bet these legal questions will take a decade to answer. But they will be answered. I’m fully certain that my sons will be driving fully automated cars and that makes me quite happy. The computers inside are safer than most adults.

Oh, and as for the Google self-driving car? I actually caught it twice. Once with my iPhone:

And once with my Canon 5D MKII. Notice this time they noticed me shooting and stepped sharply on the brakes so I couldn’t take good video of the inside. (You can switch to 1080p high def video on this one, to get a good look).

Update: I interviewed the guy, Mike Montemerlo, who works on the team that built the Google car. That was back in 2007 when he was doing his research at Stanford. That interview is very fascinating because it gives you a real look into one of the the innovative minds behind this technology.