Google has tested cars that can drive themselves without human intervention across thousands of miles of public roads.
Although the search engine company says the vehicles are still “very much at the experimental stage”, its development of artificial-intelligence technology underlines the scale of its research capabilities and its ambitions far beyond the web.
To develop the cars, Google is working with researchers from Stanford and Carnegie Mellon University, including several winners of the Darpa Grand Challenge, races of driverless automobiles organised by the US government since 2004.
A combination of video cameras, radar sensors and lasers allowed the cars – which Google says were “never unmanned” – to pilot themselves in busy traffic.
Google has already mapped and photographed hundreds of thousands of miles of roads around the world for its Street View service, including road signs and other information which may be useful for its driverless cars.
“Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] founded Google because they wanted to help solve really big problems using technology,” Google wrote on its official blog.
“And one of the big problems we’re working on today is car safety and efficiency. Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use.”
Google’s self-driven cars have clocked up more than 140,000 miles, most of them in California, including the twisty Pacific Coast Highway, the Golden Gate Bridge and Hollywood Boulevard.
It claims that the technology could eventually halve the 1.2m people estimated to be killed on the roads every year, as well as increasing drivers’ productivity. Google says of the average American’s 52-minute commute: “Imagine being able to spend that time more productively.”
Google is not the only organisation working on artificially intelligent vehicles. This summer, driverless electric cars created by Vislab, a Parma University unit, began a 13,000km trip from Italy to China for the Shanghai World Expo.
But few automotive companies are as well-resourced as Google, which invested $2.8bn on research and development in 2009, or 12 per cent of its revenues. It is also sponsoring a $30m prize to land a robot on the moon, move around and send images back to earth.
But Google’s rapid pace of innovation has occasionally landed it in legal difficulties.
Earlier this year, Google said it had made a mistake when its Street View cars collected snippets of information from unsecured wireless networks, prompting scrutiny from data protection officials around the world.