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Mace & Crown | December 15, 2017

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Google and Apple's Self-Driving Cars

Corbin Pangilinan
Contributing Writer

Self-driving cars are coming into vogue, and Google and Apple, among other companies, are racing to try to get their vision of the world’s first self-driving car to the road. Imagine a commute where, on any road, someone could sit back and let the vehicle take control while they checked their phone, took a bite of breakfast on the morning commute, or even read the morning paper. This is the sort of commute that researchers for self-driving cars hope to eventually achieve.

There are a few different tech companies rising to the cause including Tesla and Uber. So far, Google has one of the most substantial programs for self-driving cars. The company already has a fleet of vehicles out and navigating the roads, which is the result of a lot of prior testing. Their self-driving car project began in 2009, with the introduction of Toyota Priuses on California freeways.

As of December 2014, Google unveiled a prototype car, built from the ground up to be fully automated. Since June of this year, they have been running a test fleet of their prototype car in both Mountain View, California and Austin, Texas. These are running alongside the modified Lexus RX450h SUVs they used as a base for development of their self-driving software.

But how safe are these cars? According to the Verge, the problem is that the cars are being too careful, as opposed to too reckless. Currently, the cars are capped with a 25 mph speed limit and have a safety driver on hand in case things go wrong. The cars have suffered 14 accidents over the last six years of testing, though suffered here is the key word: Google maintains that the blame for all 14 accidents did not lie with the self-driving cars, instead attributing them to human error on the part of other drivers.

As ZDnet describes, Google’s first injury-causing accident on July 1 was due to the car being rear-ended by another driver “at 17 mph without any attempt at braking.” The injuries consisted of, at most, minor whiplash. The problem centers around a “clear theme [of] human error and inattention,” Chris Urmson, the project director of driverless cars at Google, said in a post on Medium.

There are still limitations, as MIT Technology Review has reported on. A major one is that the routes a Google car takes need to be mapped out and marked beforehand. Circumstances that would trip up a Google car include weather conditions such as heavy rain or snow, construction sites, physical changes in a given driving route, stoplights, and four way stops. Human elements like police officers trying to direct traffic also pose an issue. Finally, it may also overcompensate for road obstacles.

“[The] car’s sensors can’t tell if a road obstacle is a rock or a crumpled piece of paper, so the car will try to drive around either,” according to the MIT Technology Review. On the other hand, it doesn’t compensate for unmarked open manholes or potholes, so it would drive right over those.

Apple, on the other hand, has not yet officially revealed its take on self-driving cars. The Guardian obtained information confirming the existence of “Project Titan” referring to the company’s ongoing development of the cars. Before the Guardian’s article on August 14 of this year, there was no concrete confirmation of the cars’ existence.

The article mentions various other points of interest, including meetings held between Apple and GoMentum Station, “a 2,100-acre former naval base near San Francisco that is being turned into a high-security testing ground for autonomous vehicles,” outfitted with “20 miles of paved highways and city streets.”

Whatever the nature of Apple’s car is, if they plan to test it on public roads, it won’t be kept secret for long. “Any carmaker looking to test self-driving cars on public roads has to receive the okay from the DMV … meaning that all the information Apple would have to submit would become public,” according to BGR.com.

In other words, though we may not know the nature of the coming iCar, it will be forced out into the public eye unless Apple can find a way to sidestep the DMV regulations, as they would be able to do if they tested their vehicle at GoMentum Station.

Either way, Apple and Google have some heavy competition to deal with. Besides Tesla and Uber, other major car manufacturers are also hopping in on the trend. Mercedes, General Motors, BMW, Toyota, Nissan, and other car companies have different visions lying in wait, and many have set the date for the culmination of their efforts at or around 2020.