Future Tech Technology Explained

How Self-Driving Cars Work: The Nuts and Bolts Behind Google’s Autonomous Car Program

Bryan Clark 21-02-2015

Being able to commute back and forth to work while sleeping, eating, playing Trivia Crack or catching up on your favorite blogs in Feedly is a concept that is equally appealing and seemingly far-off and too futuristic to actually happen.


When Google announced their autonomous car project in 2008, visions of Minority Report began to swirl in our heads while we wondered about the possibilities of a car that really had no need for us to do anything other than turn it on. This same car wouldn’t have to worry about accidents, distraction, or driving under the influence while it made thousands – or even millions – of split-second calculations in order to keep your safe.

You see, as it turns out, humans are remarkably bad at driving. According to Joshua Schank, of the Eno Center for Transportation:

“People are not great at driving — 30,000 people die in car accidents each year (in the United States). Machines can be much better than humans when it comes to driving; they don’t drink or text and can think faster.”

While not a single driver would argue that there aren’t some real mind-numbingly bad drivers on the road, just how safe is the Google Car The Shocking Effects Of The Google Driverless Car [INFOGRAPHIC] The future is closer than you might think. Thanks to Google's top secret research department, Google X, driverless cars are now a reality and could be hitting the mainstream in the not too distant future.... Read More ?


Well, in a total of 700,000 road miles logged, the Google Car has been in exactly two accidents, of which neither could be blamed on the car. The first, happened when a human driver rear-ended the autonomous car, and the second occurred while a human was driving the Google Car on a test run. In contrast, there is one fatality for every 1.7 million miles driven in the UK and one death per 1.13 million miles in the United States (2009 data). While Google Cars have yet to log as many miles, the rate of accidents per mile driven is decidedly lower than cars operated by humans.


The Technology Behind Google’s Autonomous Car

The promising thing about Google’s driverless cars is that most of the technology is currently being used both on the road The Car Of Tomorrow - Today: Top Tools To Put a Computer In Your Car It is becoming an increasingly popular pastime to add a new element to cars, a new hub for entertainment, GPS and communications. The carputer seems to have been inspired partly by TV shows such as... Read More , and in other applications. This means that the technology that keeps passengers safe isn’t new, or untested, and outside of their proprietary software and algorithms, Google cars feature a lot of tested – and safe – hardware.

Let’s take a look at some of it.


Laser Illuminating Detection and Ranging – or LIDAR – is used to build a 3D map and allow the car to “see” potential hazards by bouncing a laser beam off of surfaces surrounding the car in order to accurately determine the distance and the profile of that object. The Google Car uses a Velodyne 64-beam laser in order to give the on-board processor a 360-degree view by mounting the LIDAR unit to the top of the car (for unobstructed viewing) and allowing it to rotate on a custom-built base.




While LIDAR is great for accurately mapping surroundings, its one fatal flaw is in its ability to accurately monitor speed of surrounding vehicles in real time. This is where the four bumper-mounted radar units pick up the slack. With two sensors in the front bumper, and two in the rear, the radar units allow the car to avoid impact by sending a signal to the on-board processor to apply the brakes, or move out of the way when applicable. This technology works in conjunction with other features on the car such as inertial measurement units, gyroscopes, and a wheel encoder in order to send accurate signals to the processing unit (the brain) of the vehicle in order to better make decisions on how to avoid potential accidents.

High-Powered Cameras

The actual camera technology How Does A Digital Camera Work? [Technology Explained] Read More and setup on each driverless car varies, but one prototype uses cameras mounted to the exterior with slight separation in order to give an overlapping view of the car’s surroundings. This technology is not unlike the human eye which provides overlapping images to the brain before determining things like depth of field, peripheral movement, and dimensionality of objects.

Each camera has a 50-degree field of view and is accurate to about 30 meters. The cameras themselves are quite useful, but much like everything else in the car they are redundant technology that would allow the car to work even if they were to malfunction.


Again, each prototype car built by Google is slightly different, but some of those tested have featured advanced sonar technology. The limitations of sonar are its narrow field of view and its relatively short effective range (about 6 meters). However, the inclusion provides yet another redundant system that allows the car to effectively cross-reference data from other systems in real time to apply the brakes, pre-tension seat belts for impact, or swerve to avoid obstacles.




A car with no steering wheel, no brakes and no accelerator would be essentially useless without advanced positioning systems to track its course and plot an appropriate route to its destination. For this challenge, Google uses its own map system How Does Google Maps Work? Google Maps is used by millions of people every day and you might be one of them, but how does it actually work and how does Google maintain its accuracy so well? Read More , as well as GPS satellites, inertial measurement units, and a wheel encoder to determine actual speed. The system works alongside the on-board cameras to process real-world information as well as GPS data, and driving speed to accurately determine the precise position of each vehicle, down to a few centimeters all while making smart corrections for things like traffic, road construction, and accidents.

Sophisticated Software

The software processes all of the data in real-time as well as modeling behavioral dynamics of other drivers How Cars Will One Day Talk to Each Other Tomorrow's transportation is not just about the self-driving car. The future will see networks of cars working together to keep passengers safe and deliver them to their destinations efficiently. Read More , pedestrians, and objects around you. While some data is hard-coded into the car, such as stopping at red lights, other responses are learned based on previous driving experiences. Every mile driven on each car is logged, and this data is processed in an attempt to find solutions to every applicable situation.

The learning algorithm processes the data of not just the car you’re riding in, but that of others in order to find an appropriate response to each possible problem. Behavioral dynamics are also mapped and this data is used to help recognize situations before they happen, much like a human driver. For example, the cars are smart enough to recognize – and adapt to – situations such as:

  • A slow-moving vehicle in the right line suggests a higher probability that the car following it will attempt to pass.
  • A pot hole or foreign item in the street shows a higher probability of a driver swerving to avoid it.
  • Congestion in the left lane means that drivers are more likely to attempt to enter the right lane.

Major Hurdles the Project Faces Before Widespread Adoption

While the technology in Google’s autonomous car program is nothing short of amazing, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant problems that still need to be addressed before we arrive at a future dominated by self-driving cars Here's How We'll Get to a World Filled With Driverless Cars Driving is a tedious, dangerous, and demanding task. Could it one day be automated by Google's driverless car technology? Read More .


Before addressing any other problems the autonomous car faces, it’s important to note that technology is still the biggest barrier separating driverless cars from the consumer market.

One of these problems Google faces is the adaptability of the mapping system. The maps used by these cars aren’t like those you see in your GPS unit or on Google Maps. Each map is highly detailed down to the height of the curbs, and the dimensions of the lane the car is currently traveling in.

The problem with this level of detail is the enormity of mapping the entire country – or the world. Currently, Google has mapped approximately 2,000 miles of road for the driverless car to operate on. To give you an idea of scale, there are more than 170,000 miles of road in California alone, and over 4-million miles of public road in the United States.

The reason the cars have performed so well in their initial 700,000 mile test is largely due to the fact that the cars get to “cheat” in the way in which they respond to their environment. That is to say, each car isn’t making decisions in real-time on how to respond to external stimuli, and Google hasn’t tested the car’s ability to respond to situations outside of these mapped environments. Of course, this is a problem that could – at some point – correct itself to an extent, as each Google Car on the road isn’t just driving, it’s also helping to create 3D maps for other autonomous cars by charting data.

Additional technology-related problems are:

  • So far, the car has issues that would prevent it from driving in snow, ice or heavy rain.
  • It’s unable to tell the color of traffic lights when sensors are blinded by sun or glare.
  • Sensors detect objects as pixelated shapes, so hypothetically, the car would respond the same way – by swerving – to miss a child in the road, or a newspaper that was floating past.


Government Regulation

By the letter of the law, at least in the home state of Google HQ (California), self-driving cars are currently legal. Chris Urmson, head of the self-driving car project at Google, says:

“The law that was passed almost a year and a half ago made it quite clear that effectively driverless operation of vehicles was permitted in California and in general we believe that’s true across much of the US.”

That said, I’m not sure many governments imagined a future with driverless cars when enacting their current traffic laws and regulations. It’s improbable to assume that the government won’t step in at some point and do their own investigation as the the practicality and safety of autonomous vehicles Autonomous Cars: Are Robots Good for the Environment? The way we use cars is going to change.  Those changes will be wide-ranging, but one area that hasn't been investigated in as much detail: the impact on the environment. Read More .

Do Consumers Even Want It?

While there has been wide-spread excitement about the technology from some, others have dismissed the idea entirely due to safety concerns, or the unwillingness to give up control of the wheel. While some may never embrace the technology Can Hackers REALLY Take Over Your Car? Read More , it’s safe to say that some segment of the consumer population would be interested assuming two main factors are addressed: safety and pricing.

While the safety concerns are still being worked out, the car does appear to have a remarkable safety record to this point. One philosophical quandary has been brought up that’s quite interesting though; how will the car respond to so-called “trolley problems?” Trolley problems are the philosophical term used to describe issues that arise where there is no correct answer. For example, a Google car has to swerve to avoid a child, but in doing so it would impact the mother, or a group of children on the other side of the road; what does it do?

So What’s Next?

Overall, it’s an exciting idea and the adoption of the technology has other practical applications. For example, a car that doesn’t need a driver, also doesn’t need a passenger. This would allow your car to drop off packages without you, give friends a ride home (and then return to your garage), or find its own parking spot after dropping you off somewhere.

In fact, the most exciting idea of all might be the fact that this could make the notion of “owning” a car obsolete. These cars could hypothetically be left anywhere, and serve as a sort of taxi for entire communities without ever having to purchase and maintain the car yourself.

Driverless cars are an exciting idea for the future of transportation, but until Google address the technological challenges and prove that these cars are indeed safer than your average driver, then they’ll remain just that, an idea. I, however, am confident that Google will work out the kinks, and that this technology will have a huge impact on the future of transportation How Self-Driving Cars Will Change Transportation Forever As we move into 2015, the question is no longer whether self-driving cars will replace manually driven cars, but how quickly they'll take over. Read More .

Would you buy a self-driving car?

Image credits: Velodyne High-Def LIDAR by Steve Jurvetson, Hoje-taastrup Kommune by Comrade Foot, Traffic Lights by MiloszB, all via Flickr

Related topics: Automotive Technology, Self-Driving Car.

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  1. Vc
    September 30, 2017 at 10:26 am

    It will be 10 to 20 years and may require smart roads for wide adoption of this tech. Till then it will be some what akin to auto pilot or super cruise control.

  2. Tom
    January 19, 2017 at 2:47 am

    They can't even get their Google browser bug free and I'll buy a car from them?

  3. xgasko
    October 25, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    Machines don't drink or text while driving, but they do math. Have you seen a human doing math while driving?

  4. Doug Taylor
    October 25, 2016 at 2:39 am

    I would never buy a car where I did not have the option to drive it manually. I enjoy driving a car and so would never buy a car I cannot drive if I wish. Who would buy a high performance sports car just to sit there while the car makes all the decisions? It will have some useful applications certainly, but it will also have its limits in terms of consumer appeal.

  5. Toren Valone
    May 23, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    what happens if the satellites fail or like the movie Gravity occurs all the satellites are destroyed and earth is left with a bunch of useless cars with no steering wheel or pedals. ?

  6. i have no name
    January 17, 2016 at 11:17 am


  7. maryam
    November 20, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    please write references.. tnx

  8. Anonymous
    October 28, 2015 at 6:08 pm

    Here's what most people don't get about self-driving cars:

    It's not the technology, it's the liability issues that have to be resolved before self-driving vehicles really become feasible.

    Can you imagine the corporate finger pointing and circle jerking that's going to happen the first time somebody gets killed in an accident cause by a self-driven vehicle?

    And somebody is bound to get killed because there is no way possible to code all of the possible scenarios that can happen on a road or guarantee 100% that the hardware will function properly.

    I have yet to hear an insurance company step up and state how they are going to handle these issues.

    It seems like a mess. I have a good driving record and enjoy pretty cheap insurance rates ($25/month from InsurancePanda). I also enjoy taking my car out for a spin and enjoying the ‘freedom’ of being able to drive anywhere. Will the driverless car allow all this? If not, I’ll have to pass.

    I've also haven't heard an insurance company step up and say they will insure a self driving car. Until this happens all this talk about self driving cars is really a non-starter.

    • jeffrey
      April 26, 2016 at 10:33 pm

      Lol, non-starter? There are already self-driving cars (or more appropriately stated, autonomous vehicles) on the road today.

  9. Bill
    March 27, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    I see a lot of good with this, and also a lot of problems that need to be addressed (and most likely will be in the coming years).
    Starting with the bad:
    There is a big issue with self drivers, and that is of public acceptance. If this technology advances to where it works very well, then this goes away. This comes at a high cost of research and development. I also see upside here with computing and technology companies as they work
    to keep up with advancements.
    2-Technological Advances
    Google has a self driver. It's still in testing and roll out phase. There are also a few other companies that are beating Google to market with aftermarket technology that can be installed on any vehicle, and without the need of LIDAR.
    A shift from driver error, to a self driving wonder mobile will certainly impact auto insurance companies. I don't know what they intend to do, but I've read what they are doing to prepare for the future of automobiles that drive themselves.
    4-Security Issues
    Of course, security is a big concern for this type of thing. Hackers and viruses will be the downfall of this new technology if they don't figure out how to protect the vehicles data. The vehicle will be very technologically laden with everything from sensors, radar, sonar, cameras, GPS, cell signals, built in wifi, and processors/computers.
    Right now, a big problem with this system is it's inability to navigate in snow or rain. Perhaps they'll invent a new way to control this via GPS? Is there a better way to program these on-board computers then to map every mile of the 2 million miles of roads in the U.S.? Stay tuned on this development.

    There are, of course, other issues until this technology becomes more mainstream. Will the car manufactures fully embrace it? Will the government pass laws or mandates that vehicles will no longer be "human controlled" when the technology is fully up, capable and running.

    Another question I have then, is who will be able to "drive" these cars? Will the legal driving age be lowered? Will these vehicles eventually be able to be programmed to just go somewhere without a person present, say for instance, to pick up the kids from school? Will you still need a drivers license?

    Now for the good.

    I see an immediate bonus in that blind people and those that cannot otherwise drive may feel more independent.
    Annual deaths from auto accidents are around 33 thousand a year on U.S. roads. That's a huge number! There is also an estimated 2.7 million auto accidents each year.
    I do not, I say DO NOT advocate drunk driving, but how convenient would it be if you went out with some friends, to not have to be the designated driver and can use your own vehicle like a taxi cab! The ramifications and applications to this are huge!
    I've read about the places that have these loaner bikes throughout the city where a person can use a bike, and park it where it awaits for the next person to use it. Could this happen to self driving vehicles? Probably not, but it's still nice to think about.

    There are more pros and cons than what I listed, but those are just some of the things on my mind when it comes to this new technology.
    I have done extensive research on where this technology is already being used. Two major U.S. car manufacturers are already in talks with private companies to find ways to adapt this technology to their existing fleets.

    There is a lot of "shirt ironing" to be done for sure, but it's been a very long time since I've been this excited in technology (when the cell phone went from being a giant brick to credit card size to be more specific. Beepers were a pain). From an investment standpoint, whomever is the first to market with this technology over a broad scope of vehicles, will certainly be worth capturing shares of before its technology is made available in everyday vehicles.

    My apologies for any typos/grammar. No time to proofread.
    Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts. Yours?

  10. Bryan Clark
    February 27, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    I can't answer definitively, but the parking lot situation should be a non-issue on both accounts. Drive-thrus might take a bit of testing and tweaking, but I can't see it being a huge problemdue to the roof-mounted LIDAR unit and its ability to map unknown situations on the fly.

    Plus, an element that a lot of us are overlooking is the ability for the cars to map their environments while they're driving and then upload that data to the cloud so that the data can be shared by other driverless cars when faced with the same situation, or the same location. Basically, that drive-thru would only be foreign to the car once, and then any additional car that goes through the same drive-thru would have the data sent to it on how to respond to that situation.

  11. Bryan Clark
    February 22, 2015 at 2:43 am

    I can't speak for everyone, but it's hard to get bored while you're catching up on those sweet, sweet ZZZ's.

  12. ptrix
    February 21, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    Some of my questions about these kinds of vehicles, in addition to those posed in the article, are: how would they navigate in environments such as fast food restaurant drive-thrus, and how effective would they be at in public parking lots (either surface or underground) when it comes to locating spaces, especially those nearest the entrances for vehicle occupants with limited mobility?

  13. Null pointer
    February 21, 2015 at 10:15 pm

    The first users will die of boredom during the third journey.

  14. Bryan Clark
    February 21, 2015 at 4:16 pm

    This is definitely a potential problem that is going to have to be addressed at some point, but it's not a problem that Google faces alone. Each year cars are getting more and more "digital", and the same vulnerabilities that Google faces are going to be faced by "normal" cars with advanced electronics in the near future.

  15. dragonmouth
    February 21, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    With security breaches occuring at all kinds of IT installations, even those with very sophisticated security setups, anti-hacking security should be priority #1, #2 and #3 before the driverless cars are released into the wild.