Google is developing cars that drive themselves

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The latest in the New York Times’ “Smarter Than You Think” series on robotics takes a look at Google’s small fleet of autonomous vehicles, capable of driving hundreds of miles without so much as a touch of the wheel from the driver.

Anyone driving the twists of Highway 1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles recently may have glimpsed a Toyota Prius with a curious funnel-like cylinder on the roof. Harder to notice was that the person at the wheel was not actually driving.

The car is a project of Google, which has been working in secret but in plain view on vehicles that can drive themselves, using artificial-intelligence software that can sense anything near the car and mimic the decisions made by a human driver.

With someone behind the wheel to take control if something goes awry and a technician in the passenger seat to monitor the navigation system, seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control. One even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, one of the steepest and curviest streets in the nation. The only accident, engineers said, was when one Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.

Other than just the sci-fi coolness of this project, what really makes it stand out is the potential to save lives. The article notes that 37,000 people died in vehicle related deaths in 2008 — that’s roughly eight times the number of American casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq since those wars began. Since most accidents are caused by human error (and especially teenage human error), these computer controlled cars could save tens of thousands of lives every year.

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