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Google Racks Up Miles in Robotic Cars

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author photo by Autotrader October 2010

Cars that drive themselves have always been viewed as tomorrow’s technology – but Google has a habit of speeding things up. The internet company announced this weekend that over the past few months, it has quietly logged 140,000 miles in a fleet of seven robotic cars tested throughout California.

The fleet, consisting of six Toyota Priuses and an Audi TT, drives autonomously with a litany of technology, from a laser range finder to “see” traffic to roof-mounted video cameras and radar sensors. The end result, says Google, is a self-driving car which won’t get drowsy, distracted, or intoxicated like a human. It will also react faster than any human and can constantly monitor all blind-spots, thanks to 360-degree vision.

Although computer-controlled cars might sound dangerous, Google says the project’s primary purpose is safety. The company believes the driverless cars could cut the number of fatal traffic collisions in half, noting that the only accident recorded by its autonomous cars was when it was rear-ended by a motorist while stopped at a red light.

Google also says the cars, manned by an operator who can override the robotics and an engineer monitoring software operation, could cut down on commute times and even allow drivers to get work done while on the move. However, the California company recognizes that the technology is in its earliest stages, as even the most optimistic estimates don’t project the system’s widespread use for at least a decade.

Google’s robotic car project is the brainchild of Sebastian Thrun, director of Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and co-creator of Google StreetView. While Thrun is well-known in the artificial intelligence community, he rose to public acclaim in 2005 by winning the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s “Grand Challenge,” collecting a $2 million prize – the largest purse in robotics history.

To win the DARPA Grand Challenge, which seeks to find new robotics technology for national security purposes, Thrun led a team of Stanford faculty and students to design and develop a robotic Volkswagen Touareg, nicknamed Stanley. The robotic SUV autonomously traversed 132 miles of desert in less than seven hours, beating out teams fielded by corporations and other universities.

Thrun described the achievements of Google’s robotic cars in a Saturday post on the company’s blog, saying that the cars have “driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe.”

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Google Racks Up Miles in Robotic Cars - Autotrader