SEMA 2012: Google’s Driverless Toyota Prius

In March of 2004, the United States Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held a competition in the Nevada desert called the Grand Challenge. The purpose was to determine if an autonomous, driverless car could negotiate a 150-mile off-road course on its own. The prize? A cool one million dollars.

Fifteen teams representing Carnegie-Mellon University and a variety of privately funded teams competed in the Challenge. Each team had equipped their car with a multitude of cameras, sensors, GPS units, and onboard computers in addition to off-road tires and heavy-duty suspensions.

Not one of the fifteen vehicles completed the challenge.

When a bunch of highly educated scientists and researchers cannot make an autonomous car work in the barren, uninhabited Nevada desert, what does that tell you? It means that making a driverless car is a very hard thing to do.

The following year, DARPA upped the Grand Challenge prize to two million dollars. A team led by Sebastian Thurn won the 2005 Grand Challenge. Thurn was subsequently hired on as an engineer at Google, and he’s been a busy man.

It’s only been eight years since the first Grand Challenge, and Thurn’s team at Google have created a driverless car that works in the city.

Think about how many obstacles a car must avoid in the desert: big rocks, ravines, and large trees or plants. Now think about how many more obstacles a car must avoid in the city: sudden stops, lane changes, sharp turns, hills, blind spots, pedestrians and cyclists, changes in speed limits, traffic signals, and a thousand other things.

This car is truly a milestone of engineering. Though it does have a person in the driver’s seat for safety reasons, the car is capable of navigating to its destination autonomously. Punch your destination address into the GPS and the car will drive you there. It will accelerate, stop, and steer all the way to the destination without any human input.

Google claims to have logged over 100,000 accident-free miles in their fleet of autonomous vehicles. Is this the future of motoring? Nevada has already passed a law allowing for driverless cars. I have to wonder if other states will follow.

From an engineering perspective, it was neat to get a look at the car up close and see what kinds of modifications Google has done. What do you think about driverless cars? Sound off by posting a comment below.