Google, GM may let cars drive themselves by 2020

April 06, 2012, 10:56 AM — On Sunday, Google announced it would race a self-driving car in NASCAR races as part of its self-driving car project, under a joint agreement with NASCAR, with which Google put out a tantalizing video that only served to demonstrate how terrifying an autonomous race car would actually be.

Unfortunately for fans of robots ‘n racing, it was all an April Fool’s Joke, which NASCAR gave away in its announcement of the new venture, just after mid-day April 1 to make sure no one was fooled long enough to believe NASCAR was anything but deadly serious about its mission in life.

“We have the best drivers in the world and would never consider replacing them despite any technological advancement,” according to the don’t-have-too-much-fun quote from NASCAR CEO Brian France.

Though Google Racing may be a joke (in this incarnation), Google’s plans for self-driving vehicles that can become automated school buses, golf carts, lawn mowers and other utility vehicles is definitely not, according to GeekWire’s Todd Bishop and Google’s own patent application.

The patent includes the ability to detect objects and plot courses around them, communicate with cars around it to warn of upcoming lane changes or other diversions and follow predetermined routes without allowing unpredictable delays from schoolkids, traffic or obstacles in the road fubar the auto-pilot.

It also includes user settings that would follow different driving styles – all right-lane, under-the-speed-limit for cautious types, passing-lane residency for more aggressive drivers and, presumably, random lane changes, honking, tailgating and other road-rage emulations to help driverless cars blend in with other cars in Boston, New York, Los Angeles and other pits of commuter peril.

In March Google demonstrated the potential of its autonomous vehicles by letting a man who is 95 percent blind drive a specially modified Prius with a revolving camera on the roof to watch where they were going, a computer in the trunk to steer, with Google engineers and a local cop on board to take over if things got messy.

In May GM will debut a Cadillac XTS that has motion sensors, radar and cameras that give the onboard computer a 360-degree view of its surroundings so it can help avoid a crash, according to ABCNews.

The Driver Assistance Package in the 2013 Cadillac XTS will be strictly a warning system at first. GM has announced plans to have its first semi-autonomous cars on the road by 2015 and fully autonomous vehicles rolling by 2020.

Only in Nevada is it legal for autonomous vehicles to drive themselves on the road in the United States, however.

Lots of luxury and, increasingly, non-luxury cars come with crash-warning sensors and self-parking systems that rely on the same AI technology that pilots autonomous vehicles.

Ford, Mercedes, BMW and Audi are also working on software designed to assist drivers in heavy traffic, but have not announced plans as aggressive as GM’s or as elaborately promoted as Google’s.

The April Fool’s joke in the Google announcement may actually be that only the part about racing at NASCAR was faked.

The rest, apparently, is not only on the drawing boards, but putting in lots of miles at test tracks and will soon be snarling traffic even further on a commuter roadway near you.

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