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Confronting the Future: Google's Robot Cars

Google may soon be known for far more than search engines.

Driver-free cars developed by engineers under Google's sponsorship have been tooling around California roads for many months now, the "robot cars" having amassed more than 140,000 accident-free miles. Among the seven test cars motoring down Highway 1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles (and inside those cities, too), none has even come close to a car accident, except on one occasion when one was hit from behind by another vehicle while stopped at a light.

The implications for the future are staggering, and excited Google scientists eagerly tick off the possibilities. Sebastian Thrun, a Google engineer and director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, heads the project. He speaks of "highway trains of tomorrow" and believes that updated versions of the robot car will cut fatal motor vehicle accidents across the globe in half.

Project researchers also tout perceived benefits in several other areas. They say that, because the technology senses and reacts better than do human drivers, cars in the future will be able to travel more closely together, freeing up highway space. They will weigh less, which will result in increased fuel savings. They will make "drivers" more productive, given that they will essentially be freed up to do work, study or engage in other activities.

The robot cars currently on the roads are legal in every respect, and police are well aware of them and the project. Each car does have a person sitting in front who can take control of the vehicle manually if necessary, although that hasn't yet been required. A technician also accompanies each ride, monitoring the navigation system and other matters.

So, when will these cars be ready? When will drivers across the country truly embrace - if, indeed, they want to - a driverless commute?

Not all that soon, but, truly, not all that far off in the future, either, according to some computer scientists. The most optimistic predictions are eight years or more away, with, obviously, considerable testing and fine tuning yet to be done before such cars become a common sight.

Related Resource: "Google's Robot Cars Coming to a Traffic Jam Near You" October 13, 2010

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