The Secret to Google’s Self Driving Cars — Google Street View

For decades the US military was trying to create self-driving cars with little success. Once the private sector got into the game, these cars improved at a breakneck speed. In 2004, when the first DARPA Grand Challenge took place, no car in the world was able to complete the 150 mile course through the Mojave desert.  By 2016, self driving cars had driven over a million miles in regular traffic. The secret was not better computers or better cameras. The secret was better maps.

Peter Norvig, Google’s head of research, told the New York Times that Google Street View is the secret sauce behind Google’s self driving cars. He said:

It’s a hard problem for computer vision and artificial intelligence to pick a traffic light out of a scene and determine if it is red, yellow or green. But it is trivially easy to recognize the color of a traffic light that you already know is there.

I remember hearing that and thinking how convenient it was that Google happened to have Street View and that they could apply it to self driving cars. This would have been a classic case of “unlocking the power of data.” But then I learned the rest of the story.

Sebastian Thrun is the creator of Google’s self driving car and the founder of Google’s “X” lab. Google didn’t just “happen” to have Street View data lying around. Street View was created by Thrun after he met Larry Page at the DARPA Grand Challenge — the self driving car race. Thrun tells the story on CNBC’s The Brave Ones:

Larry came to the race itself and … came disguised with, like, a hat and sunglasses so he wouldn’t be bothered by everybody. But … he had a keen interest in this. Larry has been a believer in this technology for much longer than I even knew. And so was Sergey (Brin). And they really want to understand what’s going on,” Thrun said.

A later iteration of the car had cameras attached to its roof, so the team could review its progress each day, leading almost by accident to the development of Google Street View.

“We realized the video’s actually amazing. And we went to Google and said ‘we’d love to help you build Street View.’ And we kind of ended up – felt like an acquisition of a little start-up company, kind of Stanford transitioning into Google where me and four of my grad students then became Street View enthusiasts.”

“And we built up Street View and with a singular vision to photograph every street in the world.”

Street View became the first project within the secret Google X. “We had a separate building that no one knew about. At least for a year and a half, no one in Google had a clue we existed,” Thrun said.

So what did we learn? Data was the secret sauce for getting self driving cars to progress as well as they have. But it wasn’t a matter of finding a data set and applying it. It was about creating the data set for that specific purpose. Street View wasn’t a useful data set that was applied to self driving cars. It was the output of the mapping exercise that made self driving cars work so well.

One final addendum: When talking about Google Street View I have to add a link to an early version of Street View from 1979 that was created at MIT. The Aspen Movie Map (movie) used laserdiscs to simulate driving through the town of Aspen.