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  (Source: The New York Times)
Seven autonomous cars have driven more than 1,000 miles without human aid

New York Times report has outlined the details of a secret Google project to truly put the "auto" in automobile. The Mountainview, California-based tech company has tested seven cars that have driven without the aid of a human for 1,000 miles, and more than 140,000 miles with minimal human intervention.

The project was created by Google engineer and co-inventor of Google's Street View, Sebastian Thrun, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. In 2005, Thrun led a team from the university to win a $2 million Pentagon prize for designing the Stanley robot car, which drove autonomously for more than 132 miles.

For the current project, Google outfitted six Toyota Priuses and an Audi TT with advanced mapping technology and artificial intelligence software that can sense objects near the car and mimic human driver decisions. A passenger has been present to make minor adjustments, like when a bicyclist ran a red light during a recent test drive.

Google's motivation for the project, its engineers say, is to make the roads safer. "Robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated, the engineers argue," NYT noted. Autonomous cars could double the capacity of our current roads by allowing them to be driven closer together, and, because of the decreased likelihood of a crash, could be made out of lighter materials, translating to better fuel efficiency.

The only reported crash, engineers said, was when one of the autonomous cars was rear-ended while stopped at a red light. Otherwise, one of the cars even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, what NYT calls "one of the steepest and curviest streets in the nation." The cars can be programmed with different driving personalities -- "cautious" is more defensive, while "aggressive" is, well, more aggressive.

Google has 15 engineers working on the project, as well as at least a dozen people with clean driving records hired to sit in the driver's seat as a precautionary measure.

But Google isn't the only party working on a self-piloted car. Researchers at Yale and NYU recently unveiled a human vision-based supercomputer called NeuFlow, which will aide in navigating cars in the future. A few years ago, DailyTech went for a ride in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge winner, a fully autonomous Chevy Tahoe.

Self-piloted autos are still years away from mass production, NYT notes, because computers have to become much more stable and less likely to crash, for one thing. Another obstacle beyond the technological aspect is the law. “The technology is ahead of the law in many areas,”  Bernard Lu, a senior attorney for the California DMV told NYT. “If you look at the vehicle code, there are dozens of laws pertaining to the driver of a vehicle, and they all presume to have a human being operating the vehicle.” Google has argued that, because there is a human being present to override any decisions of the automobiles, its experiments are legal. Lu agreed.

But there are those who believe that the technology could change society as profoundly as the Internet has. Google has not revealed a clear business plan for the new technology, but both Thrun and Google co-founder Larry Page have a shared commitment to increase the nation's highway safety and efficiency, sources say.

At least one thing is certain, autonomous cars, when perfected, would save more lives than any texting-while-driving bans.

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Pedestrians and bicyclists...
By therealnickdanger on 10/11/2010 7:53:10 AM , Rating: 2
The sad part is that even once we are all driving automated vehicles, people outside that system of control will still do unexpected things that will cause crashes and death. Even though it is illegal to walk or bike along interstate freeways, people still do it. Crossing on "do not walk", children darting into the street from behind a car, bicyclists losing balance and falling in front of the car...

But hey, on the bright side, cops will no longer have to pull anyone over for traffic violations, so they'll have plenty of free time to bust jaywalkers.

RE: Pedestrians and bicyclists...
By Spivonious on 10/11/2010 9:43:54 AM , Rating: 5
"A virus is suspected in the massive 500 car pileup on I-95..."

RE: Pedestrians and bicyclists...
By ppardee on 10/11/2010 1:23:00 PM , Rating: 2
people outside that system of control will still do unexpected things that will cause crashes and death.

You're right, but it is that way now. We're not talking about perfecting driving, simply changing the 'system' that will be making the decisions. In a recent survey, 60% of drivers in my state could not pass a driver’s license test. Even when I am ready for something to happen, my reaction time is about 0.3 seconds. That doesn’t include time required for body movement (foot from gas to brake). And that assumes that at the time that the decision needs to be made, the driver is not distracted. Now that I think about it, letting humans drive is terrifying! The key is to make sure that the computer is safer than a human driver. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I see it as inevitable.

RE: Pedestrians and bicyclists...
By Spivonious on 10/11/2010 2:01:59 PM , Rating: 2
.3 second reaction time + .5 second foot to brake movement + recommended 2 second following distance = no collisions.

The simple fact is that most people follow way too closely and are oblivious of the danger they present to themselves and others.

RE: Pedestrians and bicyclists...
By dgingeri on 10/11/2010 3:55:33 PM , Rating: 3
well, if people would actually get up to the speed limit when I'm driving to and from work, I wouldn't have to tailgate them to hint to them that they need to get up to 40 in a 40MPH zone...

Stupid slow ass people. I would, just once, like to get home on my 10 mile drive in somewhat less than 45 freaking minutes. 25 in a 40 zone should be a capital offense.

RE: Pedestrians and bicyclists...
By FaceMaster on 10/11/2010 9:14:03 PM , Rating: 2
25 in a 40 zone should be a capital offense.

What about 26?

RE: Pedestrians and bicyclists...
By Spivonious on 10/12/2010 10:38:22 AM , Rating: 2
It's a speed limit, not a goal. If someone is tailgating me, I actually slow down, so your plan isn't working.

RE: Pedestrians and bicyclists...
By Reclaimer77 on 10/11/2010 8:42:35 PM , Rating: 2
I know people have this belief that EVERYONE besides them is a terrible driver, but I have a different take on this. Unless a massive jump in Artificial Intelligence technology happens, I believe no automatic driving car system can be as capable or competent as a human driver.

As you pointed out, there is just way too much randomness and situational awareness required in day to day driving. A car system would have to literally "think" for itself, and we're a VERY long way from that happening.

RE: Pedestrians and bicyclists...
By ArcliteHawaii on 10/11/2010 9:46:02 PM , Rating: 2
The hardware has existed for a decade to do this, but the software lagged, and the hardware was too expensive to implement. Finally costs have come down to the point where implementing this is cost effective, and the software has made great leaps as well.

As evidenced by Google, on real roads, in real traffic this system performed very well. Your implication is that this is decades away, whereas I think this can be perfected and integrated within 5 years.

This kind of work is what technology is supposed to do for us: take away the drudgery so we have more free time. I would sooner trust my life to a well designed system like this than the unpredictable behavior/condition of a human driver, including myself.

Also, drunk driving, by far the largest cause of car accidents, would become a thing of the past.

RE: Pedestrians and bicyclists...
By Spivonious on 10/12/2010 10:39:50 AM , Rating: 2
drunk driving, by far the largest cause of car accidents

[citation needed]

Thanks NYT!
By MeesterNid on 10/11/2010 7:48:47 AM , Rating: 4
"NYT notes, because computers have to become much more stable and less likely to crash", really NYT? Given how they reported no crashes during the tests (except for the time the car got rear-ended) what are they talking about? And more stable...more stable than what? There is nothing here that said one of them failed in any way.

RE: Thanks NYT!
By BladeVenom on 10/11/2010 8:34:54 AM , Rating: 3
If they want public acceptance, winning at the race track would be a good place to start. "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday."

RE: Thanks NYT!
By gunzac21 on 10/11/2010 9:57:23 AM , Rating: 2
Are you serious? By crash they meant in the sense of the computer crash and having to reboot. Also the NYT realizes that just because a few cars didn't have those issues (we actually don't know weather it did or didn't according to strict rules of logic) doesn't mean we won't see them on a much larger scale.

RE: Thanks NYT!
By tastyratz on 10/11/2010 10:16:14 AM , Rating: 1
Well said. Stability is in the hands of the programmer. It is usually not the computer that made an error but the programmer is still human...

One problem though? I cant see this working universally without manual control. You can control the lanes, you can control the lights, and you can detect pedestrians... but you cant control the weather. No matter what a patch of black ice needs the same amount of road and barrier control. No amount of computer control is going to fabricate traction so allowing tighter lanes etc. would only be dangerous.

Also don't forget special purpose vehicles and circumstances. A car towing a load or a truck with a full bed will drive differently and require special attention. I don't feel comfortable with a semi etc being on auto pilot completely as well.

I think it should be treated as and used only as a smart cruise control that's driver initiated based on conditions. If the driver feels the weather is good enough to autopilot and the roads are not changed because of this then fine. Otherwise no irobot or demolition man cars please.

RE: Thanks NYT!
By ArcliteHawaii on 10/11/2010 10:01:41 PM , Rating: 2
Your concern about the weather can easily be handled by a combination of road sensors and accelerometers that are patched into the main driving control system. The precursor (both hardware and software) to such a system already exists in anti-lock brakes to ensure the proper amount/frequency of application to prevent sliding, so actually this would be one of the easier pieces to implement.

While initially such an automatic driving system may be implemented/marketed as a smart cruise control, once the data comes back showing the system performs better than human drivers, insurance companies will jack the rates on vehicles that have manual control and people will gravitate to vehicles that have no manual control.

We don't hand fill boilers with coal to get hot water, despite the fact that automated gas boilers do blow up on occasion, although decades of design have made them extremely safe. Self driving cars will be the same, it's only a matter of time, and it seems that time will be sooner rather than later.

RE: Thanks NYT!
By Divineburner on 10/12/2010 10:23:31 AM , Rating: 2
In contrary to your view point, I can definitely see this working universally without manual control.

As of now, the cars are on autopilot for themselves only. Car A has the system, the system only cares for car A. Imagine this system working on a large scale and actually able to communicate to each other. The swarm intelligence alone (if mimic-ed correctly) should make it a terrific AI.

Now that this system only works on cars. Let's expand it to traffic lights that send signals to the cars, weather stations that broadcasts weather conditions to the cars real-time, GPS systems that are able to precisely locate each car and along with the dimension of the cars, create a detailed traffic map. Not to mention that the cars can make lightning-fast decisions and are able to pass that decision down to any car in the same lane or nearby lane almost instantaneously. Eg. Someone goes across the road. One car detects it via advanced shape and pattern recognition and brakes the car. At the same time, the decision is passed down and all the cars following immediately brakes, while the rest slows, and so on.

The technology for the recognition already exists and are used extensively in the movie industry. Look how far facial recognition had come. Imagine the time where such a system is implemented, such technology would be improved by leap and bounds.

Personally speaking though, I wouldn't jump into a closely-packed, high speed lane of traffic. If someone do so and gets killed, well, it's Darwin at work.

RE: Thanks NYT!
By tastyratz on 10/12/2010 12:17:22 PM , Rating: 2
To counter - facial recognition has come a long way but is also easily fooled with a simple printed photograph (or 2 offsets for dual cameras)

Pedestrian accidents aren't just suicide runs. It could be anything from people trying to make a crosswalk as its changing, falling off a bike on the side of the road, being pulled by a dog, etc.

Maybe someday it would be more acceptable but its not as simple as getting the cars out there, it would be a massive infrastructure change within the travel system.

There are a million unprogrammable unaccountable scenarios that would require manual intervention.

A computer might not be able to distinguish a tree swaying from a branch falling and a reasonable rate of speed would not be one that left much room for waiting till it across the road. The AI might also not be able to tell if a telephone pole is going down, or if power wires are across the road.
It has no prioritized sense of urgency when traveling to the hospital or family doctor for those in rural areas etc.

ABS/Traction control and similar systems detect when its too late. Antilock brakes detect sliding tires during decelleration, traction control detects power delivery greater to that of a given traction. Neither system detects a slide at cruising speed nor compensates for current or future conditions. By the time the system picks up on a problem you have already... LOST traction. If it was cruising at 60mph on an interstate for example and a patch of snow melted then refroze ahead you might see the ice but the car would not. Manual intervention would be what saved your life.

Also consider target markets - a vehicle complex enough to perform these duties with heavily invested AI as well as many additional sensors has a higher purchase/ maintenance cost. Roads with appropriate feedback are likely expensive and would greatly increase dpw overhead especially in smaller towns. Consider dirt roads and private roads which are not marked on a gps.

Don't get me wrong I think its an excellent idea, but I think as long as computing power does not equal that of the human brain we can not assume it can understand an infinite number of situations and interpret those with which it was not programmed for. In my lifetime? maybe the end. Till then its a smarter cruise control.

Is this leading to Total Recall?
By frobizzle on 10/11/2010 8:10:17 AM , Rating: 5
Dazed Passenger: Where am I?

Robot Driver: You're in a JohnnyCab!

Dazed Passenger: How did I get here?

Robot Driver: The door opened. You got in. (Mechanical eye roll)


By Spivonious on 10/11/2010 9:41:28 AM , Rating: 2
See you at the party, Richter!

RE: Is this leading to Total Recall?
By Reclaimer77 on 10/11/2010 8:45:03 PM , Rating: 2
Johnny Cab's are the best! Because in the future an expensive automated taxi EXPLODES when you stiff them for a 10 buck fare!

By frobizzle on 10/12/2010 8:19:59 AM , Rating: 2
Robert Picardo was perfect as the voice of JohnnyCab. He had just the right amount of obnoxious in his tone that fit the character to a tee!

By solarrocker on 10/11/2010 8:25:29 AM , Rating: 3
Think about it, robot nascar!! I would go see it, if they all used their own custom made software/hardware it would be extremely interesting to watch. Like robot wars used to be, but bigger, and no remote control...

By umbrel on 10/11/2010 8:44:18 AM , Rating: 3
I agree, think Formula 1. No one die on crashes, so its just the show. Plus rather than just lighter they can give to the cars some spikes blades or offensive powerups and have play rough, or at least make the race track like a rollercoaster with dangerous turns that must be passed at high speed to keep the car car against the road. :)

By Anoxanmore on 10/11/2010 10:28:39 AM , Rating: 5
Beware of the spiny blue turtle shell!

Cops might actually have to solve crimes
By HrilL on 10/11/2010 3:53:35 PM , Rating: 2
So we'll have no more DUI (Massive revenue source in my town) No more speeding tickets. (We all know of speed trap towns where the speed drops from 50 to 25 in 2 blocks) Where are these Cities and Counties supposed to get these revenue sources that they cherish so much. So we'll need less Cops (Fine by me since they don't seem to do anything where I live anyway other than break the laws their supposed to enforce.) If a crime is talking place and you call 911 you'd be lucky if they got their within an hour.

Also Wouldn't cars on the highway be able to go a lot faster? I mean not for at least 20 years. By the time 90% or more cars are all automated. We should be able to have them going 100+ MPH.

The cars could also be networks so they could share road hazards with cars that are behind them as well..

RE: Cops might actually have to solve crimes
By Anoxanmore on 10/11/2010 4:15:20 PM , Rating: 2
Skynet is pleased with your imagination...

By ArcliteHawaii on 10/11/2010 10:03:03 PM , Rating: 2
I'm disappointed with the lack of yours...

By zebano on 10/12/2010 3:06:44 PM , Rating: 2
The grammar police have arrived:

"fewer cops" not "less cops"
"they're supposed to enforce" not "their supposed to enforce"
"Also Wouldn't" is a wonderful start to a sentence.

Re: the article:
I honestly think that this is a great step forward. The improved reaction time and constant vigilance of a computer is a natural progression. If I could get in a car, give it a destination then start reading I would be much happier than I am cursing at all the people going 25 in a 40.

Smarter cruise control
By dani31 on 10/11/2010 7:46:59 AM , Rating: 3
I wouldn't give permanent control to my car.

However I would very much like a smarter cruise control so that I can safely send an email or eat a sandwich on the highway.

RE: Smarter cruise control
By ArcliteHawaii on 10/11/2010 11:21:24 PM , Rating: 2
I think what will initially happen is people will react like you: I'll just use it on the highway so I can send this text. When the car drives safely for them for that first 30s, they'll use it more and more. They'll test the limits: will it stop at this stop sign on this deserted road? Will it take my exit ramp for me? Will it slow down to the correct speed limit if I manually take it over? Once folks get used to it, they'll use it all the time, and spend time surfing the internet on their ipad...

We already have self driving cars...
By Warwulf on 10/11/2010 12:39:51 PM , Rating: 4
We already have self-driving cars (those without human input).

We call them Toyotas.

By Ammohunt on 10/11/2010 3:30:41 PM , Rating: 2
automated cars versus affordable mass transit for people other than bums? Invest in Mass transit that actually goes where people need to go and you can get rid of cars entirely.

RE: Hogwash
By ArcliteHawaii on 10/11/2010 10:08:21 PM , Rating: 2
I agree, it's much more cost effective and energy efficient to run mass transit, and in the USA, we have very poor mass transit infrastructure. Improving that needs to be a priority, especially since mass transit can so easily be run off of electricity, which can be made in so many different ways.

However, there will always be places (the countryside) and jobs (ambulance, police) that require automobiles. So having the safest most efficient driving control system will still be required.

Define, please
By dgingeri on 10/11/2010 3:52:51 PM , Rating: 2
has tested seven cars that have driven without the aid of a human for 1,000 miles

Define "without the aid of a human" please. My car will only go about 400 miles on a tank of gas, and I don't see these machines operating a fuel pump and "pay at the pump" with robotic arms. So a human had to deal with refilling them.

RE: Define, please
By ArcliteHawaii on 10/11/2010 10:15:25 PM , Rating: 2
Go read the NYT article. There was a human driver in the driver's seat the whole time. To gain control of the vehicle all they had to do was turn the wheel, step on the brake, or hit a red button. I think the article said only once or twice in the whole 1000 miles of testing did the driver take control of the vehicle to avoid something, and the car was already taking the same action at the time he did.

Much Faster Speed Limits
By Shawn on 10/11/2010 4:19:20 PM , Rating: 2
As long as it means we can get rid of the ridiculously low speed limits I'm all for it.

RE: Much Faster Speed Limits
By ArcliteHawaii on 10/11/2010 10:12:28 PM , Rating: 2
As computers can react much faster than humans, I would think that speed limits would increase a bit, but there are a few reasons we would expect them not to go up to much:

1. There are still physics-based limitations to stopping a 1500 kg vehicle should a small child chase a ball into the road.

2. The faster you drive, the more wind resistance you encounter (over 60 kph or 40 mph) and the more energy you use reducing gas mileage (or battery life) and range.

This is nothing new
By YashBudini on 10/11/2010 5:30:40 PM , Rating: 3
Idiots texting have been doing autonomous driving for quite some time now.

Google Maps
By HomerTNachoCheese on 10/11/2010 3:37:45 PM , Rating: 2
The whole purpose of this is so that when you tell your car you want to go to the grocery store, it takes you 30 miles out of your way to map an obscure piece of road that is not currently in Street View, then it takes you to your destination.

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