Growing up with three older brothers it is no surprise that I have a great affection for cars. From NASCAR races to go-karts to racing games on Nintendo, I was taught to feel the need for speed. My father and brothers taught me to drive. And while my brother Chris taught me how to do doughnuts, my father taught me to be a polite driver. He stressed the importance of alternating when merging, maintaining a consistent speed on the highway, yielding to pedestrians, and all the rest of the driving tenets so frequently ignored in the Washington, D.C. metro area. But last week I had the great opportunity to try out a new piece of technology that would take the attitude out of DMV traffic- the Google self-driving car.
I joined ITI President and CEO Dean Garfield along with our communications ace Meghan Fletcher to take a spin with a couple Google engineers and get a look at how this emerging technology works. The Google car is a combination of off-the shelf technologies including: a Toytota Prius, a LIDAR laser mapping system, a radar system, internal cameras and an incredibly accurate GPS combined with some incredibly innovative artificial intelligence software.
Now, when I say incredibly innovative software, I mean it. The car takes the information it is gathering from all those technologies, coupled with existing maps and a real-time assessment of the traffic, road and landscape changes and then uses its software to make all the decisions necessary to get from point A to point B. Pedestrian enters a walkway illegally? The car stops. Light changes from red to green? The car goes. Need to make a right hand turn uphill on 12th Street? The car turns, stays in its lane and accelerates while adjusting for the incline.
This technology is still under development, and the engineers at Google have a long list of items to tackle as they continue their work. The trip to Washington has provided a lot of perspective for the team, due to Washingtonians’, um, shall we say, unconventional driving habits combined with such complexities as Dupont Circle. In a few days the Google car will head back to California to continue development and growth of this technology. Engineers are hopeful that the little hang-ups are on their way out the door and we may be seeing self-driving cars on the road in the near future.
From traffic accidents to fuel usage, the Google car could change the face of our roadways and a huge part of our culture as Americans. Once again, a leader in the tech industry has shown us what is possible and I’m glad I got to go along for the ride.
Colleen Pickford is Director of Environment and Sustainability at ITI.