Google on New Path, Developing Self-driving Cars

Picture sitting in your car, maneuvering through busy downtown traffic while talking on your phone or sending a few texts.

This isn't a scene of illegal texting or phone use. Why not? Because the car in this scenario is driving itself , leaving the passengers inside free to use their mobile phones. (In Google 's ideal scenario, you'd be talking on an Android phone.)

This is Google's image of the future. The company known best for its search engine announced this past weekend that its engineers are working on developing technology for cars that can drive themselves. Autonomous cars may be a bit far afield from Google's normal work in search, browsers , operating systems and maps, but the company is looking to head down a new road.

"Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard," wrote Sebastian Thrun, a distinguished software engineer at Google, in a Saturday blog post . "They've driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research."

Thrun also noted that they use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to virtually "see" other cars and the basic traffic flow. The company that also introduced Google Maps and Google Earth , also used mapping technology to navigate the road ahead. And they took advantage of Google's massive data centers to hold and process all of this information.

While the autonomous cars were on the road, they were occupied by a "trained safety driver," as well as a software engineer who could monitor the vehicle's software operations.

"We've always been optimistic about technology's ability to advance society, which is why we have pushed so hard to improve the capabilities of self-driving cars beyond where they are today," Thrun wrote. "While this project is very much in the experimental stage, it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future thanks to advanced computer science. And that future is very exciting."

So why would Google, a company whose name is a verb for Internet searching, set its sights on autonomous vehicles?

One reason is because they can, said Ray Valdes, an analyst with research firm Gartner.

"The long answer is that likely there are multiple reasons," Valdes said. "This may have been an offshoot of the Street View mapping in Google Maps, and that took on a life of its own. Probably the project was not killed because it is cool, had support of senior management, and there is some potential reward further down the road, so to speak."

Much as it happened after Google got into the mobile phone market and the operating system arena, industry watchers are wondering if Google is losing focus on what makes the company money. Self-driving cars? How does that fit into Google's overall strategy?

"Although the car project does raise the issue of loss of focus for Google, at the same time, Google's search business has become mature, which means that the company needs to cast a wide net to look for new sizable market opportunities," Valdes said. "The field of autonomous transportation could, in 10 to 15 years time, be larger than the search engine business. It's an extremely long shot for Google, but the investment is modest, it leverages existing core initiatives -- Google Maps -- and does support the "geeky" aspect of their brand today."

Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, isn't as optimistic.

"Google is a company that can't seem to spell the word "focus," which means activities like this are likely to be more distracting than successful," he said. "They enter a field where companies like VW and Intel have been active for some time, and penetrating the automotive market can be even more daunting than penetrating the enterprise market."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

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