The car glided down the street, slowed gradually, then braked at the stop sign. A group of school children holding hands crossed at the intersection. The only thing unusual about the situation -- the car was driving itself.
Google's self-driving car, a modified Toyota Prius, hit the streets of Washington, DC today. The purpose of its visit to the nation's capitol: to show advocacy groups like AARP, AAA, and American Council for the Blind how an autonomous car can build a safer driver. Google representatives say this product will be able to help "everyone in America," including those with vision impairment and the elderly. Unlike humans, they say, a driverless car will never get distracted, drunk, or sleepy, and therefore is capable of preventing many deadly crashes.
The self-driving car, dubbed "Oscar," is equipped with five sensors and two cameras. Sensors communicate with a computer inside the car that decides whether to brake, or to accelerate. Google is also installing software to better understand pedestrian and driver behavior; some techniques this software employs deal with distance, velocity, and the angle of steering wheels to determine how cars are moving. If something goes wrong, a driver can choose at any time to retain control of the car, and a touch of the wheel will switch the system to manual mode.
While one Google engineer said the most important thing computers can do in the next ten years is to drive a car, this product is nowhere close to being ready for the road; rather, company reps would say only it will be released when it drives more safely than people do, which they do not believe will be anytime soon.