How (and How Well) Google’s Self-Driving Cars Get Around

Photo by Steve Jurvetson. Trimmed and retouched by Wikipedia user Mariordo.

We think the most important thing computers can do in the next decade is to drive cars.—Sergey Brin, cofounder of Google

Having redefined the way people search for and find information on the internet, Google — everyone’s favorite/most-reviled search giant — has now set its sights on revolutionizing driving.

That’s right: Google has put its immense resources and technological ingenuity to use — radically transforming how people get from point A to point B. How? By taking the driver out of the equation.

But just how do these driverless vehicles of the (not-so-distant) future do it?

How Google’s self-driving cars work

Think of the driverless car’s systems as physical embodiments of the “spiders” Google’s search engine uses to map the digital world. These spiders crawl all over the web, indexing, cataloging, analyzing, and ranking information. Then they serve up search results for your browsing pleasure. The self-driving car “crawls” the real world, but makes its own decisions about the right path to take.

In the real world (in which an autonomous vehicle needs to get around), Google performs 2 information-gathering missions. The first is done by a good ol’ fashioned human being, who travels the car’s intended route, gathering information about any recent changes, such as road condition, new markers, etc.

That information is then uploaded to Google’s servers. Next, a backup driver and software engineer hop in the robo-car and load the previously gathered route data into the car’s computer system.

As the car sets off, a powerful laser array on top of the car, several smaller radar arrays, and a standard GPS start gathering new information about the live environment rolling by. The lasers map the car’s immediate surroundings out to a 50-foot radius. Using the lasers, the car can differentiate between other cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and small and large stationary objects (including death-defying squirrels, hopefully).

Meanwhile, the radar scans for fast-moving objects beyond the laser’s range. And a third sensor system, a camera mounted on the front of the car, gathers the same data the human eye would: traffic lights, road signs, etc.

Google’s computers synthesize all this data in real time, giving the car’s artificial intelligence the info it needs to make the right decisions. Decisions that include tricky choices, such as when to take the initiative if hesitant drivers don’t act on their right-of-way. It turns out the intelligent auto isn’t so robotically kind that it can’t opt for a little aggressive driving when the situation warrants it.

And should the human behind the wheel decide to take over, the car reverts to manual control with a tap on the brake pad, a turn of the wheel, or the press of a button.

The driverless cars’ track record so far

To date, Google’s mini-fleet of self-driving cars has logged over 250,000 miles. Almost all in California, where laws covering the artificially intelligent vehicles don’t yet exist.

But how’s their driving? Well, so far, better than human. After all, in 250,000+ miles, they’ve only been in 2 minor fender-benders, one of which occurred while the human backup driver had the wheel, Google contends. Though some skeptics have their doubts.

Want to know more about Google’s autonomous car? Come back next Monday (6/25) for part 2 of our driverless car series.

Sound off

So now that you’ve got the lowdown, what do you think of driverless car technology? Does the prospect frighten or awe? Let us know!


Back to basics: how Google’s driverless cars get around

Happy Father’s Day from Esurance

When is Father’s Day?

Father’s Day 2012 is this Sunday, June 17. And though the holiday may be a source of celebration now, it had a bit of a bumpy start. While Mother’s Day was made official in 1914, Father’s Day floundered until 1972 when President Nixon proclaimed the third Sunday in June to be a federal holiday.

This year, the National Retail Federation estimates that $12.7 billion will be spent on Father’s Day gifts (that’s a lot of ties!). But all these tokens are really just a way to say, “Thanks, dad.”

After all, our dads were there to witness our first steps, our first words, and our first day of school. They were the ones who picked us up when the car ran out of gas, showed us how to change a flat, or at least taught us the difference between a crescent wrench and a socket wrench. And for many of us, it was probably dad who taught us to ride a tricycle and then a bike — and eventually to drive a car (the holy grail of teenagedom).

Whether dad’s driving advice was calm and practical (try not to hit that tree) or stressed and maniacal (oh #*$%, don’t hit that tree!!), it was most likely well-intentioned as he tried to make sure you’d be safe on the road. Do you ever find yourself thinking about his driving wisdom when you’re stuck in traffic or trying to parallel park? See? No matter how much dad’s presentation skills may have lacked, what he taught us about driving will last a lifetime.

Most of us will discover at some point in our lives that dear ol’ dad was indeed right about checking the oil regularly, getting tune-ups, and not talking on the phone while we drive.

Like Mark Twain is believed to have said: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.”

What did your dad teach you about driving? Share your stories.

Happy Father’s Day

Father’s Day doesn’t have to apply only to the person with whom we share our genes. It can be about thanking anyone who helped us grow into the people we are today.

As you think back on all your dad (or other male role model) taught you — fondly or not — maybe it’s time to let them know how much you really care. A heartfelt note, written by hand, should do the trick. (Tie is optional.)

Greetings from Esurance: Cape Henry, Virginia

The first day of summer is just around the corner (June 20, to be exact), so we’re pleased to bring you the next photo in our Greetings from Esurance series. The series highlights road trip photos from some of our hard-working associates who like to get out on the road sometimes.

Today’s photo comes to us from Chris N. in our Sioux Falls, South Dakota office. Chris and his wife spent their first anniversary visiting lighthouses along the East Coast (this one is from Cape Henry, Virginia). Feeling inspired? Keep checking back for more road trip destination photos!

(Click to enlarge.)

Are you taking a road trip this summer? Tell us about it!

Related links

Greetings from Esurance: Highway 1, California
The recipe for a perfect road trip
3 summer road trip tips for better gas mileage

3 Alternative Fuels from Sci-Fi and How They Might Actually Work

Esurance loves technology — it’s how we make car insurance easy and modern. But technology isn’t just for car insurance (so we’ve been told). In fact, technology’s also revolutionizing the way we power our cars — paving the way for fuels that are renewable, domestic, and friendly to the environment (and you know we’re all about being green).

Some alternative fuels (algae, electricity, biodiesel) may seem like science fiction — sci-fi writers have been toying with bizarre fuels to power their high-tech, fictional spacecrafts for years. But interestingly enough, many of these space-age fuels aren’t actually that different from what real scientists are already working on. Here’s a few of our favorite sci-fi fuels, and a look at how they might work in the real world.

Star Trek — plasma fuel

The USS Enterprise is one of the most iconic and strangest looking spacecrafts in science fiction. Apart from looking like a pancake or maybe some sort of mushroom, the Enterprise is famous for popularizing the idea of warp travel — i.e., “faster than light!”

To achieve its necessary faster-than-light propulsion, the Enterprise relies on its matter/antimatter reactors to create plasma, the invaluable fuel of warp travel. But what is plasma? Well, as incredibly intelligent scientists tell us via the Internet, it’s the fourth state of matter — neither liquid, solid, nor gas. It’s the ubiquitous, nebulous substance powering our televisions, our sun, and our hard-to-explain science fiction technologies.

Could plasma fuel work?

Plasma fuel may sound outlandish, but astrophysicists at Ad Astra Rocket have been working on it as a solution for deep space travel. They’re currently developing an engine called the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR®), which uses radio waves to heat argon gas to a million degrees, turning it into plasma — or a mini sun. Come 2014, the VASIMR will be tested in space. And if it’s successful, we could one day reach Mars in as few as 39 days (instead of the usual 2 years). Sounds pretty Trekky, doesn’t it?

But could plasma technology work on a smaller scale — like, say, in our cars? Unfortunately, this sort of technology is mainly limited to fictional, theoretical, and experimental spaceships. But don’t count plasma out yet! In 2009, 10 inventors (including Bill Gates) filed a patent for an electromagnetic car engine that would use a plasma injector, instead of a spark plug, as an ignition source.  It may not be Star Trek, but it’s a step.

Battlestar Galactica — tylium ore

Battlestar Galactica’s eponymous spacecraft is a giant military vessel that leads the survivors of an annihilated solar system through space in search of a new home: a distant planet called — dramatic pause — Earth.

However, the Galactica faces a big problem in meeting their ship’s huge appetite for fuel. With no home planet to refuel on, the Galactica is forced to jump from planet to planet, mining a rare metallic ore called tylium, which they refine into a yellowish, combustible liquid fuel. Sounds kinda familiar, doesn’t it? (Ahem, petroleum.)

Could tylium ore work?

Tylium is, by earth standards, an outdated fuel source. After all, reliance on foreign, non-renewable fossil and mineral fuels is so passé.

Back to the Future — garbage fusion

Everybody’s favorite time-traveling DeLorean is also the poster child for recycled energy. The DeLorean’s flux capacitor, which allows it to cross the threshold of time, is actually powered by pure garbage. Its generator (called the Mr. Fusion) transforms raw garbage into nuclear energy through the process of nuclear fusion (please don’t ask how it works).

Could garbage fusion work?

With a little help from our old friend plasma, a garbage-to-fuel transformation is actually conceivable. Engineers have been working to turn our landfills into major stockpiles of fuel by blasting garbage with plasma at such high temperatures that the waste is vaporized to its individual atomic parts, yielding a substance known as syngas — a combination of mostly hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Syngas, once it’s cleaned, can be converted to fuels like ethanol or diesel.

The process of turning trash to fuel is still in its infancy, but it’s a promising solution. Not only does it recycle previously unusable garbage, but it also creates clean-burning, renewable fuel. (Also, garbage gasification releases extremely low emissions.) So while we may not be time traveling anytime soon, we may be a bit closer to the world of Back to the Future than we thought.

Next up in alternative fuels: biofuels

While some of these sci-fi fuels aren’t quite ready for everyday use, scientists have been busy working on the next solution to our fuel problems. Today, many alternative fuels are available, including several different types of biofuels, like ethanol and biodiesel.

Interested in affordable green rides that are actually on the market? Find out how to choose the greenest gas-powered vehicles.

Related link

We bust 5 myths about gas

Lessons from the Road (Learned the Hard Way)

Not long ago, I learned I’d be moving from Chicago to Los Angeles. Upon realizing I’d be driving this distance, I cried a little. Then I looked at a map … and I cried a lot. Not since Ivan Drago’s Rocky IV haircut had a large, flat expanse looked so terrifying.

But once the tears had dried, I found myself loading my car, Sweet Delilah Grant, and looking on the bright side. “I can see breathtaking scenery,” I told myself. “I’ll become one with the road. I’ll eat gas-station club sandwiches!”

All packed, I turned Delilah’s ignition and she purred like a kitten. I looked to my lone passenger, my girlfriend Angie, and we smiled at each other. Foolishly, of course. For we had no idea what mega lessons from the road were about to be handed down to us.

Lesson 1 — daytime TV must be doing alright

Thursday, 2:32 p.m. I vacate my parking spot, which (unsurprisingly to Chicago natives) I’d been occupying for roughly a presidential term and the trip is underway!

Thursday, 2:37 p.m.
Immediately, I’m stuck in rush-hour traffic. I don’t know when people started leaving the office at 2:00, but I can’t help wondering, with Oprah off the air, what is there to rush home to? One length-of-a-football-field down, about 2,000 miles left to go.

Lesson 2 — the sun is punctual, to a fault

Thursday, 7:25 p.m. I nervously realize that every sunset on this drive will be right in my face. This wouldn’t be an issue, of course, if Delilah still had sun visors. But they’re missing for reasons I can’t remember (though possibly related to a post-college need for dinnerware). “Maybe the sun will set in the East,” I tell Angie. “Global warming?”

Lesson 3 — only the cows know what’s really going on

Friday, 9:02 a.m. We begin day 2 in Angie’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. And, joyously, I find the city’s morning traffic to move more like a synchronized swim routine than a defensive line on a football field. Bravo!

Friday, 9:45 a.m. Alas, our quick start is nothing but a tease as we soon encounter endless road construction. You know you’re moving too slowly when you can recognize cows by their individual smirks. Yep, that’s Bessie #27. So smug.

Friday, 11:00 a.m.
After the twelfth lane closure on I-80 within 60 miles, I turn to Angie. “Was there this much construction when you lived here?” “This much?” she says grimly, “there was this exact construction.” Well that explains those smirks.

Lesson 4 — when your hood unexpectedly flies open, it’s irritating

Friday, 1:38 p.m. (!)

Lesson 5 — Tetris: it’s preparation for life

Friday, 4:12 p.m. Ascending the Rocky Mountains is gorgeous. Until you notice your car has stopped accelerating, that is. I check Delilah’s vitals only to find she’s in perfect order — it’s just that, towing about 300 pounds of stuff, this is simply as fast as she can go.

Friday, 5:08 p.m. After stopping mid-mountains to gas up, merging Delilah back onto the steep interstate onramp proves difficult. The gas pedal is to the floor yet, amazingly, we begin to fall backward (a uniquely horrifying sensation I thought possible only in Mario Kart). “Why did we pack so much?” I say, downshifting with fury. “I told you you didn’t need your own balsamic vinegar barrel!” says Angie. “Whoa. Let’s not say things we can’t take back.”

Lesson 6 — maybe there’s something to this yoga thing

Saturday, 8:12 a.m. I’m noticeably achy as I crumble into the driver’s seat for the third and final day. You might wonder if Angie is ever going to get behind the wheel. Unfortunately, no. For Delilah is a stick shift, which Angie never learned to drive. On one hand, I understand her lack of interest in handling a manual transmission, but on the other hand … DEAR GOD, MY LEGS!!

Saturday, 8:35 a.m. If the detached sun visors and temperamental hood didn’t give it away, Delilah is no spring chicken. She’s a 1997 Volkswagen Passat with 127,000 miles. Despite her age, though, she’s performed remarkably well — until right now. It’s here that I lose one crucial component to the mega-road-trip: cruise control.

Saturday, 12:49 p.m. With cruise control, driving the rustic eastern Nevada roads could be rather tranquil. Without cruise control, it’s just plain brutal. My knee, shin, and ankle bones whine as I labor to keep up with the speed limit on these never-ending straightaways. Meanwhile family vans are zooming past me — toddlers lean out the window to shake their fists and shout, “Sunday driver!”

Lesson 7 — mother nature hates leather upholstery

Saturday, 3:55 p.m. There’s a traffic jam in Las Vegas, and we’re at a standstill. Temps float near triple digits. Oh, did I forget to mention that Delilah (spirited old thing that she is) also doesn’t believe in air conditioning? I lean forward to adjust my position and I’m not sure if that ripping sound is my back tearing from the leather seat or my sanity finally pulling the rip cord and making a break for it.

Saturday, 4:11 p.m. So hot that the steering wheel is literally shedding layers onto my palms. Is that a giant ice cream cone or just a Wayne Newton cutout?

Lesson 8 — Sometimes high-5s will do

Saturday, 5:01 p.m. Things have cooled off now as we move into California. I’d smile, but I can’t seem to move my facial muscles. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I blinked. Utah, maybe?

Saturday, 5:42 p.m. Have to stop at the agricultural check. “Bringing in any fruits or vegetables?” the guard asks. “Only myself,” I say. “Only myself.” He makes a face, then does a thorough 10-minute check for exotic foodstuffs.

Saturday, 7:00 p.m. When you start a journey that’s estimated conclusion is 2 time zones and 3 days away, it’s a semi-unreal sensation when you actually enter your final hour. But we have. “Pinch me,” I say to Angie. “Pinch yourself,” she says. Ah, the camaraderie of the road.

Saturday, 7:42 p.m. I fit Delilah into a new parking spot on our new street. Then get out and reach to the sky. With 33 hours of driving behind me, I look in the window reflection at my greasy hair, sweat-stained shirt, and owl-circled eyes. Angie’s cousin is waiting there to greet us. Her arms open to hug me. I stare at them for a long moment. “I, um … you better not.”

Related links

Tips for staying entertained on the road
Packing a road trip emergency car kit