The blind man that convinced Google to launch a self driving car firm: Steve Mahan revealed as first person to ride without a Google engineer on board (and he says it was 'like driving with a very good driver')
- Firm says its cars have now driven three million miles on public roads
- Legally blind Steve Mahan was the person person allowed to drive solo
- Car ferried him around Austin in October 2015
- Mahan said it was 'like driving we a very good driver'
- Google today launched its car firm, to be called Waymo
Google has turned its self-driving car division into a new company - and says a trip by a blind driver was the 'inflection point' for the technology.
Steve Mahan, former director of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center used one of Google's cars on his own in Austin in October 2015.
The pod-like car with no steering wheel and brake pads drove the legally blind passenger around neighborhoods in Austin, Texas without another human in the vehicle - the first time one of the project's cars had given a passenger a ride without a human on hand to take control of a self-driving car if something went wrong.
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Steve Mahan, former director of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center used one of Google's cars on his own in Austin in October 2015 - convincing the firm to spin out its project as car firm Waymo.
'It is like driving we a very good driver,' Mahan told the Washington Post.
'If you close your eyes when you're riding with somebody you get a sense of whether this is a good driver, or whether they're not.
'These self-driving cars drive like a very good driver.'
Google says the company spent six months scrutinizing the vehicle's performance before Mahan was allowed to set out alone.
The car he rode in had a back up computers and multiple systems go control it.
'It was so much fun, being aware that the vehicle was navigating intersections, and I was in good hands, perfectly safe,' Mahon said.
The car Mahan rode in had a back up computers and multiple systems go control it.
'There are millions of people like me, both blind or having other disabilities, or the situation of age, that would prevent me from driving,' Mahan said.
'This is a hope of independence.
'These cars will change the life prospects of people such as myself. I want very much to become a member of the driving public again.'
Steve Mahan, who is blind, gestures for a steering wheel that doesn't exist inside a Waymo driverless car during a Google event, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016, in San Francisco. At left is Waymo principal software engineer Nathaniel Fairfield. The self-driving car project that Google started seven years ago has grown into a company called Waymo.
Google said today its car firm will be named Waymo.
'We are getting close and we are getting ready,' Waymo CEO John Krafcik said Tuesday after unveiling the new company's identity.
'We've talked a lot about the two million miles we've driven on public roads,' Krafcik said at the event.
'Now we've driven another million miles on public roads.
A trip taken by Steve Mahan, former director of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, was an 'inflection point' in the development of self-driving cars, Google executives said.
'We don't talk as much about miles we put on in simulation.
'We've done over one billion miles in simulation[…] And we have taken over 10,000 trips with Googlers and guests in places like Mountain View, Austin and Phoenix.'
Krafcik called the trip taken by Steve Mahan, former director of the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, an 'inflection point' in the development of self-driving cars.
It came a year before a Budweiser beer truck equipped with self-driving technology owned by ride-hailing service Uber completed a 120-mile trip through Colorado while being steered by a robot while a human sat in the back of trailer.
In doing so, Krafcik and other supporters of self-driving cars believe the technology will drastically reduce the number of deaths on the roads each year because they contend robots don't get distracted or drunk, nor ignore the rules of the road, like humans do.
A skylight is reflected in the rear window of a Waymo driverless car during a Google event Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016, in San Francisco.
The firm has been hiring auto execs ahead of the change, including the appointment of Krafcik, an ex-Hyundai North America executive.
The announcement marks a crucial step in the development of Google's high-profile program, now in its seventh year.
It has been at the forefront of self-driving technology, but faces increased competition from rivals.
As its own company, Waymo will now face more pressure to generate a profit under Alphabet's management instead of simply focusing on research.
Rather than make its own cars, Waymo intends to license its technology to traditional automakers and trucking companies.
In the latest report on Google's highly anticipated fleet of self-driving vehicles, the firm revealed that it has taught its cars to perform one of the trickiest driving maneuvers to master. Google claims that its cars can perform the turn better than most humans
'It's an indication of the maturity of our technology,' John Krafcik, the project's chief executive, told reporters.
'We can imagine our self-driving tech being used in all sorts of areas.'
Uber is also working with car makers in deploying its own self-driving vehicles for its ride-hailing service, including Ford and Volvo.
Other automakers, like Volkswagen and GM, have opted to build or acquire their own self-driving tech and on-demand mobility service offerings.
Earlier this month it was revealed Google's self-driving cars are now able to perform tricky three-point turns.
The cars are fitted with 360-degree vision, and a complex internal computer that constantly calculates and analyses its surroundings.
They have mastered the driving maneuver so well that they can perform it better than humans.
In the latest report on Google's highly anticipated autonomous fleet, the firm revealed its cars perform thousands of the turns each week on real city streets.
The cars' on-board computers process map and sensor information to determine where they are in the world - on a wide highway or in a narrow alley, for instance.
They then use sensors, including their 360-degree visual system, to determine where objects are around them.
The software in the car's advanced computer system classifies objects around it by size, shape and movement pattern.
This allows it to differentiate and prioritize between a wall and a moving cyclist.
The cars were taught to identify and avoid everything from parked cars to dustbins as they performed the tricky three-point turn. A digital image shows how the car's on-board computer helps it to avoid other vehicles - outlined in purple - as it performs a smooth turn
The software then takes all of this data and projects a safe and efficient route for the car to perform its three-point turn.
'This is one of the trickiest maneuvers to master, as drivers attempt to move a two-ton machine a full 180 degrees,' Google state in its report.
'Often, drivers are forced to tentatively inch forward and backward, in tight spaces, without a full view of the road.
'Our goal is to a develop a fully self-driving car that can handle every part of driving, and that means teaching our car to handle advanced maneuvers like these multi-point turns.'
But computer chips don't navigate the road in the same way a human brain does, and so Google has had to make adjustments to ensure its three-point turn still feels natural.
For example, a computer may calculate that the most efficient turn involves a series of very short adjustments back and forth.
For passengers this jerky movement does not feel natural.
Google fixed this issue by programming its cars to perform three-point turns with wider arcs and more forward motion, the way that a human driver would.
This turn is slower, but feels more natural and comfortable to passengers.
Google currently operates 24 Lexus RX crossovers and 34 of its own gumdrop-style vehicles across four states: Washington, California, Arizona and Texas. It plans to rapidly expand this test fleet in future
Google currently operates 24 Lexus RX crossovers and 34 of its own gumdrop-style vehicles across four states: Washington, California, Arizona and Texas.
To date, the cars have driven 2.2 million miles in autonomous mode, averaging about 25,000 miles per week.
Each month, Google releases a report on its current fleet's development progress.
Within each of these reports, the firm includes a charting of all collisions.
In October, there was one collision.
While at a stop sign and yielding to traffic, one of Google's gumdrop vehicles was rear-ended by a human driver.
Google report that the vehicle was travelling at three miles per hour, and that the only damage sustained was a small amount to the rear hatch.
No injuries were reported at the scene.
HOW DOES GOOGLE'S SELF-DRIVING CAR WORK?
Google's prototype two-seater 'bubble' cars have buttons to begin and end the drive, but no other controls.
An on-board computer uses data from sensors, including radar, a laser and cameras, to make turns and negotiate its way around pedestrians and other vehicles.
Google's cars are fitted with state-of-the-art 360-degree vision, and a complex internal computer that constantly calculates its surroundings. This on-board tech grants the vehicles unprecedented awareness on the road
Under the vision unveiled by Google, passengers might set their destination by typing it into a map or using commands.
The cars are also expected to be electric, capable of going 100 miles (160km) before needing to be recharged.
The front of the vehicle has a soft, foam-like material where a traditional bumper would be and a more flexible windscreen, in an attempt to be safer for pedestrians.
The prototypes are restricted to speeds of 25mph (40 km/h) and the ability to self-drive will depend on specifically designed Google road maps tested on the company's current fleet of vehicles.
But ultimately the vehicles will be faster and will be able to use Google's extended maps service, using GPS technology to locate the vehicle's exact position on an electronic map.
A combination of radar, lasers and cameras sitting on top of the roof give the car a 360-degree 'view', with sensors linked to computer software able to 'see' and identify people, cars, road signs and markings and traffic lights.
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