Google's Self-Driving Cars Learn City Roads

Government may move slower than technology when regulating self-driving cars.

Google's self driving car

Google employees have tested its self-driving car in its hometown of Mountain View, California.

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Google announced updates about how its self-driving cars are learning to navigate city streets, but despite this progress the government might not allow such vehicles access to American road during this decade.

The tech giant explained in a blog post how it improved the software to recognize objects during a city drive that are not found on a more predictable freeway commute, including pedestrians, buses and cyclists.

Google employees have tested the self-driving car in its hometown of Mountain View, California, since that state legalized autonomous cars on its roads in 2012. At that time, Google co-founder Sergey Brin predicted self-driving vehicles would be available to "ordinary people" in less than five years.

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“A self-driving vehicle can pay attention to all of these things in a way that a human physically can’t – and it never gets tired or distracted,” the company said. ”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.”

Car companies, including Audi and Nissan, are also designing self-driving cars, but in a few years when they seek permission to sell to consumers, regulators might slow their roll out of safety and privacy concerns.  

Regulators might not be prepared to clear a self-driving car for American roads before 2020, Carnegie Mellon University professor Raj Rajkumar said during a November meeting of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. Selling a self-driving car to consumers by 2020 was also a goal mentioned during that hearing by Andy Christensen, Nissan’s senior manager of technology planning.

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A more accurate projection for self-driving cars is likely during the next decade, especially after the government announced it needed more time to draft regulations for companies to use aerial drones. Congress in 2012 ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to complete rules to integrate nonmilitary drones into U.S. airspace by 2015, but it is “unclear” when the agency will complete privacy and safety rules for those aerial devices, FAA administrator Michael Huerta told Congress in February.

Privacy regulation may also become necessary for cars as they become more connected to mobile devices with geolocation features, according to Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who introduced the Location Privacy Protection Act. The bill seeks to require companies to get individuals’ permission before collecting location data off of their smartphones, tablets or in-car navigation devices. Self-driving cars that collect data on their driver’s traffic behavior would likely fall squarely within those privacy concerns.

"Modern technology now allows drivers to get turn-by-turn directions in a matter of seconds, but our privacy laws haven't kept pace with these enormous advances," said Franken in a January statement.