Google said it has been testing automated self-driven cars on public roads as part of the company's goal to "help prevent traffic accidents, free up people's time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use."
In Google's blog, principal project engineer Sebastian Thrun said the self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles (more than 225,000 kilometers) driving across California.
A virtually controlled car uses video cameras, radar sensors, a laser ranger finder that senses other vehicles around it and detailed maps for navigation. Google's data centers then process all the information gathered by the car when mapping the terrain it will take.
Though the cars used for testing operate on their own, they are never unmanned as Google said each unit always has two people inside at all times. A trained safety driver sits behind the steering wheel "who can take over as easily as one disengages cruise control" while a software engineer sits in the passenger seat to monitor the software. In addition, before any test with an automated car begins, a driver in a regular car maps the route and road conditions to help the automated car's software get familiar with the driving environment. The local police are also briefed whenever Google's automated car is being tested in their jurisdiction.
Thrun cited a World Health Organization reported that claims over 1.2 million lives are lost every year in traffic accidents and that the technology Google is developing through their self-driven cars could reduce that figure by as much as half.
"We're confident that self-driving cars will transform car sharing, significantly reducing car usage, as well as help create the new 'highway trains of tomorrow.' These highway trains should cut energy consumption while also increasing the number of people that can be transported on our major roads," Thrun said. "While this project is very much in the experimental stage, it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future thanks to advanced computer science. And that future is very exciting."