July 08, 2013, 7:53 PM — Take a drive on Highway 101 between Silicon Valley and San Francisco these days and you might see one of Google's driverless cars in the lane next to you. The vehicles are one of the most visible signs of the increasing amount of research going on in the area related to automated driving technology.
To people like Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google and head of the Google X division that is researching the cars, the technology holds the potential to transform urban centers, reduce the amount of land given over to parking lots and cut down on accidents.
Cars will be able to drop people off at work in pleasant green spaces and drive themselves away to distant parking lots, where they'll park efficiently in compact spaces, Brin said last September. He predicted widespread use of autonomous vehicles could come as soon as 2018.
Cars from Nissan, Ford and BMW already have parking assist functions that require just a little help from drivers to perfectly slide into a space. And last year, Nissan showed a prototype car that can find itself a space and park -- without a driver even being inside.
The eventual goal is fully automated freeways. Cars would travel in long lines, much closer together than they are now because they'll be controlled by computers. That would reduce congestion and burn less fuel, because there would be less of the constant speeding up and slowing down. Drivers would have time to read a newspaper or catch up on email as their cars shuttle them to work.
"On a normally operating highway, cars take up a tiny fraction of the space," said Brin. "Mostly, it's all air between you and the car in front of you, to the sides of you. Self-driving cars can chain together and use the highways far more efficiently."
While the dream is appealing, it may also be farther down the road than Brin suggests. Autonomous cars today are limited to roads that have been mapped in advance for each vehicle, and the required sensor technology costs several times the price of the vehicle.
The roots of today's autonomous driving research in the U.S. can be traced to 2004 and the DARPA Grand Challenge. Set up by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, the event challenged teams to design and race driverless cars over a 240-kilometer (149-mile) course in the Mojave Desert.
As a race, it was a failure. The farthest any car got was just under 12 kilometers. But as a kick-starter for development and innovation, it was a huge success.
Among the teams that built on their race experience was David and Bruce Hall. In 2004, the stereoscopic camera system they used for navigation allowed their converted Toyota pickup truck to travel 10 kilometers and take third place, though they scrapped the system for a prototype laser imaging system.