February 6, 2015

Google’s Self-Driving Car: Digital Maps Shape the Future of Transportation

By Lauren C.

Have you ever ridden in a taxi with a driver who screeches around corners, halts too hard at red lights, or has one too many hula girls bouncing on his dashboard? What if you could omit all of this and avoid the hassle? Say hello to Google’s self-driving car.

If there’s anything we’ve learned about Google, it’s their ability to reinvent themselves and challenge existing societal norms. This persona is rooted deep within the company psyche. The self-driving car encompasses that sentiment by showing the rest of us what’s possible by utilizing digital maps and new technology to create a mind- boggling innovation.

The car operates by taking 3D generated maps from a 64 beam laser outside of the car and combining them with images of high resolution maps of the world. This produces two distinct data models that allow the car to effortlessly drive itself.

The data models are “probably best thought of as an ultra-precise digitization of the physical world, all the way down to tiny details like the position and height of every single curb.” New York Times columnist John Markoff said that riding in the car was so smooth and simple that it was, in fact, “boring.” Well excuse us rubes over here. We thought it seemed pretty cool.

Google engineers have added the extra step of human judgment by pre-driving routes and mapping them down to precision. Mapping lead Andrew Chatham explained that, “Rather than having to figure out what the world looks like and what it means from scratch every time we turn on the software, we tell it what the world is expected to look like when it is empty. Then the job of the software is to figure out how the world is different from that expectation.”  This added step helps to feed data to the car so the software within the vehicle knows what to expect on the already mapped out route.

However, there are a few challenges facing the self-driving car. One is the fact that people may not be willing to ride in a vehicle without a person who can make a quick judgment call that a car cannot. Secondly, the self-driving car models are mainly electric cars, and it’s impossible to know whether or not the infrastructure will be available to support widespread electric car use, as many people are still leery of them.

There is also a matter of regulatory laws surrounding self-driving cars. One policy maker argued that, “the technology is now advancing so quickly that it is in danger of outstripping existing law, some of which dates back to the era of horse- drawn carriages.” In other words, there will have to be new laws created to guarantee liability in the event that self-driving cars become widespread in a few years.

There are other consequences to consider as well, including what the future holds for digital maps. If the type of maps used for this vehicle prove to be worthwhile for trains and planes, then what happens to pilots and engineers? Furthermore, what will it mean for the future of local businesses who are trying to be found on Google Maps?  Perhaps the Map app will be implemented into the Google Cars automatically, complete with Google My Business profiles and even recommendations. The Google Now digital assistant can list the top restaurants of an area to report on traffic congestions.

The answers will come once we see if the technology and infrastructure are currently sufficient to support innovations like Google’s self-driving car. Hopefully this tech experiment will have a better run than Google Glass.


  1. Yeah though there is no denial in the fact that driverless cars are the future but I think still they have a long road to pass before getting accepted mainstream. My cousin who works with a DUI attorney Los Angeles is quite upbeat about them as he think it will reduce cases of drunk or drugged driving.

  2. Thank you alia52nalie for your comment. We will see what the future holds for the self driving car!