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12 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Google's Self-Driving Cars

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A long piece in the New Yorker details the challenges of changing absolutely everything about how we get around.

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This weekend, the New Yorker published an incredible story by Burkhard Bilger on Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) automated cars.

This story does for engineering what All the President's Men did for journalism: It makes decades of grueling work seem like a picaresque adventure of discovery. Here are a few things about self-driving cars that we learned from this article.

1. Self-driving cars are the future of yesterday.
We started hearing about Google's X division and its ambitious projects just a few years ago, and we know that other companies, like Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA), Nissan (OTCMKTS:NSANY), and Toyota (NYSE:TM), are developing similar ideas. But the driverless-car story begins much earlier. In the late 1950s, General Motors (NYSE:GM) worked on a "smart roads" concept, in which jet fighter-like cars would be controlled by an electric cable and radio. Bilger's story goes on to describe several other pre-Google attempts related to this quest.

2. Congress has its role in the growth of automated driving.
Its goal is to have all ground-combat vehicles be autonomous by 2015. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the military's cutting-edge research arm that helped birth the Internet, wasn't making much headway, so it held a race.

In 2004, DARPA challenged engineers to get an empty, fully robotic car down 42 miles of twisting road in the Mojave Desert. Anthony Levandowski, who is now a Google X engineer, thought far outside the box and developed a self-driving motorcycle. His Berkley team got some funding for it from Raytheon (NYSE:RTN) and Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE:AMD). They were up against competition from Carnegie Mellon, funded by GM, and Caltech with Northrup Grumman (NYSE:NOC). In the first challenge, the Carnegie team made it seven and a half miles before crashing and burning. The motorcycle made it just a few feet.

A rematch was staged, and DARPA offered twice the original prize money. Bilger explains how that went down.

3. Google needs to be seriously secretive.
There is a sign at the entrance of Google's many cafeterias that warns against the possibility of corporate spies following an employee into the building.

4. Street View and Maps make millions of data corrections each day.
The Google car engineers were first tasked with perfecting Street View, which provides mapping data that is much more accurate than GPS data.

5. The first prototype for the Google car was made for Discovery Channel.
The engineers didn't think that a self-driving car could make it on city streets, but gave it a go for Discovery Channel's (NASDAQ:DISCA) Prototype This!

6. The first test run of Google's robotic car on city streets happened in 2008, and the car's non-driver had its own security detail.
The car made it through downtown San Francisco before getting stuck against a wall, but that was enough to get Larry Page and Sergey Brin to approve the car project.

7. The latest prototype still needs the driver to take control in certain situations.
When there is road work ahead, drivers get a one-mile warning before having to drive manually.

8. No automotive engineers were hired at first.
The project's lead engineers wanted to bring in a new breed who would think outside the box.

9. Google's founders make challenges for the car team.
To test the prototype's ability, Brin and Page design itineraries that include busy San Francisco traffic, in which the human driver is not allowed to even touch the brake. (Some of the California road trips designed by Google's founders sound gorgeous.)

10. In development, the self-driving car was hopeless at four-way stops.
Abiding the law to the tee was problematic since, like an overly polite Canadian, the car would not enter four-way intersections until the streets were free of vehicles, which is not the way humans drive. The article doesn't specify whether this issue has been resolved.

11. The car's cameras could spot a 14-inch object 160 feet away.
It can also see traffic patterns far ahead down the road, so it knows when to stop.

12. The self-drive function doesn't work well in the rain.
The sensors get messed up when the lasers bounce off of shiny surfaces.

Self-driving cars are expected to make us all a lot safer, but not only people will benefit, as illustrated by one heartstring-pulling episode that the article described:

"[Lead programmer Dmitri] Dolgov was riding through a wooded area one night when the car suddenly slowed to a crawl. 'I was thinking, What the hell? It must be a bug,' he told me. 'Then we noticed the deer walking along the shoulder.' The car, unlike its riders, could see in the dark."

(See also: Why Apple Inc. Can't Save the Smart TV)

Twitter: @vincent_trivett
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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