Alphabet has teamed up with the Department of Transportation for a project that will make it easier for driverless cars to navigate around cities.
The project, called Flow, is part of a joint venture between the DOT and Footpath Labs, a company run under Google-turned-Alphabet, to aggregate anonymized data to better understand traffic patterns and congestion areas in cities.
Flow will use data from billions of miles of trips, Waze, Google Maps, and sensors on the roads to understand transportation patterns.
“When you think about what we’re doing is bringing lots of data in and making that data available that we think will be an essential element in, over time, enabling autonomous vehicles to operate successfully in cities,” Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Footpath Labs, said on a call with journalists Thursday.
“We don’t have any specific plans, we just want to create the data sets and analytical tools that help make that more possible over time,” he continued.
Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx was also on the call, showing a growing relationship between the federal government and Google that will be necessary for making driverless cars a reality.
“Autonomous vehicles are coming. The Secretary has recognised and been one of the most articulate advocates of cities preparing for that day,” Doctoroff said. “We share the view that the core foundation of elements ultimately making that available is to have data on what’s actually going on on the streets themselves.”
The announcement of Flow comes just a few days after Chris Urmson, director of self-driving cars under Google X, called for federal laws that will set regulations for autonomous vehicles and allow them to hit the roads.
Driverless cars are getting better at understanding traffic patterns and looking out for obstacles like pedestrians, but making roads that can support this kind of technology is vital to moving the technology forward.
Andrew Ng, chief scientists at Baidu, often referred to as the Chinese version of Google, has written about this very issue in Wired. To get driverless cars on the road, it is necessary to make “modest changes to our infrastructure,” he wrote in the Wired article.
Ng noted a few ways cities can adapt to allow driverless cars operate safely in cities, like having construction workers guide traffic using wireless apps instead of hand signals so that driverless cars learn how to behave via electronic signals.
Building several traffic signals at difficult intersections and ensuring roads have clear lane markings are other ways cities can aid driverless cars in navigating safely, Ng wrote.
“Safe autonomous cars will require modest infrastructure changes, designs that make them easily recognised and predictable, and that pedestrians and human drivers understand how computer driven cars behave,” Ng wrote.
Flow is part of the DOT’s Smart City Challenge, which has accepted proposals from cities all over America for ways to collect transportation data.
The finalists are: Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Denver, Colorado; Kansas City, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Portland, Oregon. Each will receive $100,000 to go forward with collecting this data, which will aid in making cities ready for driverless cars.
Transportation data collected from Flow will also be used to provide citizens with information like areas with heavy traffic and where the nearest parking spot is. Footpath Labs will build 100 kiosks in the winning city with free WiFi so people can easily access this traffic information.