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Google now testing driverless cars on city streets

July 10, 2014 by Steven M. Gursten

People being people will pose unique legal challenges for driverless cars


People jaywalking, indecisive bicyclists, darting children and swerving cars… The above examples serve to bring just some of the challenges of driverless cars into sharp focus. But these are not technological obstacles. They’re precious lives, and the mistakes people will make are foreseeable ones.

Humans are humans, after all. The question of how a driverless car will respond to these “human” challenges is going to be the key issue to its widespread adoption and how it meets the legal challenges that will be raised as the technology continues to develop.

And the technology that will answer these questions is developing quickly.

Recently, Google has started testing its self-driving cars on city streets. This is a crucial new phase in the search engine giant’s quest to eventually make the technology a standard feature in cars. After several years of testing self-driving cars on freeways, where driving conditions are more predictable, Google is now shifting focus to city street driving in the past year, according to a post on Google’s official blog: The latest chapter for the self-driving car:  mastering city street driving.

Readers of my legal blog know I’ve been following driverless technology closely. Readers also know I’m a huge proponent to its eventual adoption, even perhaps my own obsolescence as an attorney who helps people injured in automobile accidents. But it’s precisely for this reason – that driverless cars promise to save thousands of lives – that makes me so excited by its eventual adoption.

The technology will never be perfect, but we should not deceive ourselves into thinking people will be the safer alternative. Car accidents will still occur, but the numbers will be much less. So many of the car accidents I’m involved with as an attorney involve people texting or driving distracted.

Self driving cars — also called driverless cars, autonomous cars and robotic cars —are vehicles that drive themselves, but with advanced technology, such as video cameras, radar sensors, lasers and a database of information collected from manually driven cars that enable them to sense the environment and navigate without a human driver behind the wheel. In other words, no “stupid human tricks” behind the wheel with driverless cars in our future. That translates into just a fraction of the preventable motor vehicle accidents that occur today with human drivers.

“A mile of city driving is much more complex than a mile of freeway driving, with hundreds of different objects moving according to different rules of the road in a small area,” wrote Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s self-driving car project, in the blog post. “We’ve improved our software so it can detect hundreds of distinct objects simultaneously – pedestrians, buses, a stop sign held up by a crossing guard, or a cyclist making gestures that indicate a possible turn.”

Here’s an interesting video from Google showing how a self-driving car views the world as it navigates, including through construction zones, avoiding a stopped truck, approaching a railroad – and even steering clear of a cyclist who changes his mind multiple times:

And as I wrote above, this technology is now in Michigan. Ann Arbor is at the forefront of the testing that is now taking place. And a new, $6.5 million, 32-acre site is being built on the University of Michigan’s north campus as a test center for self driving cars. The site is set to simulate a downtown cityscape, and the idea is to test self-driving technology in the realistic conditions of an actual Michigan roadway.

Related information:

Self-driving cars can now be legally road-tested in Michigan.

Can a future with driverless cars save 1.2 million lives a year?

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