When it comes to fully autonomous vehicles, no other company comes close to Google’s prowess or its commendable safety record (after millions of miles of driving, only one accident has been proven to be the fault of a Google car, and even that was a relatively minor incident). Unfortunately for Google, it has lost a person that has been instrumental in the ongoing success and spectacular achievements of the company’s AI-driven autonomous car initiative.
That person is Chris Urmson, a Carnegie Mellon University researcher that decided to jump aboard the fast-moving Google train back in 2009.
“My own journey with self-driving cars had begun a few years earlier with the DARPA grand challenges, where my team at Carnegie Mellon competed to navigate a vehicle autonomously across the desert and later through a 60-mile mock city,” writes Urmson. “Driving an average of 14mph, with no pedestrians and relatively well-behaved traffic, my team from Carnegie Mellon came out on top.”
Carnegie Mellon Chevy Tahoe circa 2008
I had a chance to sample Carnegie Mellon’s self-driving chops back at CES 2008 with a heavily modified Chevrolet Tahoe SUV. I sat in the backseat with other members of the press as we marveled at the ability of this machine to pilot itself around a parking lot with absolutely no human intervention, while obeying stop signs and yielding to traffic. However, the vehicle was overrun with sensors and cameras on its exterior, which did little to hide the fact that this was a research vehicle. And let’s not even mention the fact that the entire cargo area of the Tahoe was filled with the necessary computing firepower (in this case, ten Intel dual-core IBM Blade severs running on a modified version of Ubuntu Linux) to make self-driving possible.
But since 2008, and even since the time Urmson joined Google, autonomous technology has rapidly advanced. Cameras and sensors have dramatically decreased in size to the point where self-driving vehicles look a lot more like regular production cars. And processor technology has advanced to the point where we no longer need huge racks of computing power to serve as the “brains” of the machines. During his time at Google, Urmson has overseen nearly 2 million collective autonomous miles from the vehicle test fleet.
“I feel lucky to have played a role in building this team from a handful of people into the world-class team it is today, readying self-driving cars that will soon take you from A to B at the push of a button,” Urmson continues. “After leading our cars through the human equivalent of 150 years of driving and helping our project make the leap from pure research to developing a product that we hope someday anyone will be able to use, I am ready for a fresh challenge.”
Lexus RX450h self-driving vehicle from Google’s current test fleet
What will that next challenge be? Urmson has no idea where he will head next, but he is looking for a project that has been as rich and fulfilling as his time with Google.
“Chris has been a vital force for the project, helping the team move from a research phase to a point where this lifesaving technology will soon become a reality. He departs with our warmest wishes,” wrote Johnny Luu, a spokesman for Alphabet, Google’s parent company.
We would all like to thank Chris Urmson for his contributions to autonomous driving. The work that he helped to pioneer carries on not only at Google, but at dozens of auto manufacturers that are looking to put fully autonomous vehicles on the road. But as companies like Tesla have shown us, there are going to plenty of speed bumps and potholes along the way before we can embrace a fully autonomous future for vehicles.