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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]

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