MIT’s self-driving golf carts are tourist-friendly, Google’s are wary of people

A prototype for Google's self-driving car.
A prototype for Google's self-driving car.

Google this week shared the accident record for its self driving car fleet — 16 minor crashes since 2009 — then revealed that many of the errors transpired because the robots found it hard to understand people.

The robots followed traffic rules to the letter, but people were less predictable, inching forward at stop lights when waiting their turn, or darting out in bikes from between parked cars.

Meanwhile, halfway across the world, another fleet of autonomous vehicles had little problem wooing passengers and pedestrians alike. An MIT group road-tested a fleet of self-driving golf carts at a park in Singapore over six days, the university reports.

At a conference at the MIT Media Lab last year, lead of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, Daniela Rus, laid out her vision for a future where a fleet of taxis could move around passengers more easily than human drivers. Algorithms would predict traffic congestion times and peak ride-hailing times, and through the course of the day the taxis would hang out at locations where they are needed.

The demonstration using golf carts at a park in Singapore brought part of her vision to life. 
According to MIT News, 500 tourists were ferried across the park over a six-day test period. They also used an application to order pickups and dropoffs from 10 locations on site.

The golf carts already are being tested around campus at the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise, But as Boston Globe Magazine staff writer and one-time passenger Neil Swidey found in June, the carts still draw startled looks from pedestrians and fellow drivers.

Writes Swidey: “… in a few months, the government is expected to allow the testing to expand to Singapore’s sprawling ‘One-North’ district, a hub for biotech, media, and R&D companies.”

Taxi-maker Uber is turning up the heat on competition in this technologically new space, one in which industry and basic researchers must operate in lock-step.

In February Uber announced that it would open a research facility in Pittsburgh, the Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, which turned out to be staffed in large part by roboticists lured away from Carnegie Mellon University. By May, the company’s first self-driving car was spotted on the city streets.

A July feature in Wired illustrated the the gaps in car software security, featuring a duo of security researchers who hacked into a Jeep as it was being driven along a highway outside St. Louis, Miss. (The story’s picked up more than 700 comments so far.)

What became of the two researchers? They now work at Uber. And it’s still hiring.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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