Google researchers have created cars that can drive on public highways without a human at the wheel.
Using technology developed through participation in a series of autonomous vehicle races sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Google's self-driving Toyota Prius has already logged 140,000 hours on roads between the company's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters and its office in Santa Monica, Calif., with minimal human intervention.
The robot cars resemble Google's Street View vehicles. Instead of a camera on the roof, the autonomous cars have an optical LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) sensor on top, with additional radar sensors mounted on chassis.
"Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to 'see' other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead," explained Google software engineer Sebastian Thrun in a blog post on Saturday. "This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain."
The researchers involved in Google's project participated in DARPA's challenges. They include: Chris Urmson, a Carnegie Mellon robotics scientist, Mike Montemerlo, senior research engineer in Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Lab, and Anthony Levandowski, a product manager at Google who's noted for modifying a Prius so that it can deliver pizza without a person inside.
Google is pursuing self-driving cars to save us from ourselves and to help the environment. Noting that as many as 1.2 million people are killed every year as a result of road accidents, Thrun suggests that automated vehicle technology has the potential to reduce car-related mortality by as much as 50%. (The technology could also reduce movie budgets by making car chases too boring to film.)
Beyond increasing road usage and fuel efficiency through the creation of "highway trains" -- closely coordinated lines of autonomous vehicles -- Thrun says that self-driving cars would allow people to be more productive by working rather than driving during their commutes, which average 52 minutes per day, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Before such futuristic scenarios can really be considered, however, there will have to be changes in the legal system. Neither Google nor automakers will want to offer automated cars if they're held liable accidents.
There will also have to be changes in the American psyche. Cars have long been associated with independence and personal identity in the U.S., and elsewhere. It will take a major social shift before most people will accept Google as their driver.
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