Google's self-driving report on slow driving and emergency vehicles

There were two interesting takeaways from Google’s monthly self-driving report.

Google has published its monthly self-driving car report and while it does not contain any earth-shattering information, there were two interesting points raised worth mentioning.

Overly cautious and annoying?

Earlier this month, Google received some heat when one of its self-driving cars was pulled over on a public road in California for driving at 25mph on a 35mph road. The speed for Google’s self-driving cars have been capped at 25mph for safety reasons. But it raises a few questions. Whilst it might fulfil the purpose of making roads safer, it will most likely seriously irritate other drivers on the road for being overly-cautious.

Here is Google’s response:

“Slower speeds were easier for our development process. A simpler vehicle enabled us to focus on the things we really wanted to study, like the placement of our sensors and the performance of our self-driving software. Secondly, we cared a lot about the approachability of the vehicle; slow speeds are generally safer (the kinetic energy of a vehicle moving at 35mph is twice that of one moving at 25mph) and help the vehicles feel at home on neighborhood streets.”

Google explained that most roads in Mountain View, California are 25mph anyway and during rush hour “no one is moving anywhere close to 25mph”. Google’s explanation strikes me as reasonable given that it is easier to test and learn from a slower speed model.

At the same time, it is interesting to note how self-driving vehicles blend with ordinary human drivers. Each driver has his or her own personality – some play by the book whilst others make up their own rules. And a very important driving skill is having the ability to spontaneously react to unusual situations on the road – without posing a danger to other drivers or making a situation worse. So far, the reports from residents suggest that while they generally feel safe sharing the roads with Google’s cars – they do drive “like your grandma”.   

Responsive to emergency vehicles

Having said that, Google does appear to be working on improving its cars’ reactions to spontaneous situations - like responding to emergency vehicles. According to its report, it has taught its software to identify them. The report says:

“Even if sirens aren’t sounding, our cameras are on the lookout for emergency vehicles and are designed to detect flashing lights. So if a fire truck is coming through an intersection, we’ll stop and let it through. Or if an emergency vehicle is approaching from behind, we’ll slow down and pull over until we know it’s safe to resume the journey.”

So far Google seems to be making good progress and has made some impressive additions to its software. It is certainly on track to making roads safer. But there is no doubt there are many hurdles yet to overcome – taking into account the multitude of behaviours that exist on roads and being able to successfully blend in – without causing a scene.


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