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Self-Driving Cars Get Tested on City Streets

April 30, 2014

The progress of autonomous car development continues as the self-driving rides from Google Inc. and Volvo Car Group take on the city.

Self-driving cars from both companies have been tested on freeways for a long time. They have worked well in such environments, where driving conditions are easier to anticipate. The real test is whether these cars will also do well when navigating city streets. City driving is more complicated and less predictable than freeway driving, as there are more objects and elements to consider.

Impressively, the self-driving cars managed the city streets with no problem. Google’s self-driving car did remarkably well—the car has been traveling the roads of Mountain View, California and has logged 700,000 miles without the help of a human driver.

Google’s autonomous ride has so far excelled in its city test thanks to the tech giant’s design software. In its blog, Google said that it worked on the software so it was capable of identifying a considerable number of different objects at one time. The software did not only detect the more apparent objects like other vehicles and pedestrians; it also detected “a stop sign held up by a crossing guard, or a cyclist making gestures that indicate a possible turn.”

The software was created in such a way that it took note of multiple details that may not all be noticeable to a human driver. Because the technology does not get distracted or tired, it is always alert and therefore proves safer compared to a human behind the wheel.

Google pointed out that what a human sees as a disordered environment looks fairly simple to the computer. To a human driver, all the elements present in a city street may seem overwhelming; to the software, these are not. The software was improved to consider all possibilities in a urban setting, to anticipate both the expected and the unexpected.

While its driverless vehicle is slowly mastering city driving, Google admits that there are still a lot of work to be done. Mountain View is but one testing ground, and one that is a breeze to navigate. Other cities are more congested, posing more challenges for any autonomous car.

“We still have lots of problems to solve, including teaching the car to drive more streets in Mountain View before we tackle another town, but thousands of situations on city streets that would have stumped us two years ago can now be navigated autonomously,” Google said.

Just like Google, Volvo is also testing a driverless car project of its own. The project, named ‘Drive Me,’ is already underway. The automaker is testing 100 self-driving cars on the roads of Gothenburg, the second largest city in Sweden. The roads navigated by the cars are common commuter routes and are usually busy arteries.

Volvo’s autonomous car, which was shown to the public at the recently concluded New York International Auto Show, is powered by Autopilot technology. Autopilot allows the driver to pass on the responsibility of driving to the car.

“The test cars are now able to handle lane following, speed adaption and merging traffic all by themselves. This is an important step towards our aim that the final ‘Drive Me’ cars will be able to drive the whole test route in highly autonomous mode,” said Erik Coelingh, Technical Specialist at Volvo Car Group.

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