Google tests cars that can drive themselves

Over the weekend, Google finally admitted to one of the worst kept secrets in Silicon Valley: they are working on developing cars that can operate without drivers.

Despite the prior knowledge of many in the tech and auto industries, it is still a remarkable project. And one that appears to be much further along than anyone had suspected.

In a post on Google’s corporate blog, software engineer Sebastian Thrun outlined the technology involved. “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.”

So far, Google’s automated cars have logged over 140,000 miles, including excursions onto Hollywood Boulevard, the Pacific Coast Highway, and across the Golden Gate bridge. They have even driven a converted Toyota Prius down the hairpin turns of San Francisco’s Lombard Street!

Despite the successful tests, Google isn’t sending out unmanned cars anytime soon. For now, there is always a driver behind the wheel ready to take over should anything unexpected happen. And there is also an engineer on board to monitor the software. The only accident that has been reported was when one Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.

The ultimate goal is to improve car safety and efficiency. According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.2 million lives are lost every year in traffic accidents. Google engineers believe their technology has the potential to cut that number by as much as half. Thrun also wrote about creating the “highway trains of tomorrow”, which could dramatically cut energy consumption and commuting time.

“While this project is very much in the experimental stage,” writes Thrun “it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future thanks to advanced computer science. And that future is very exciting.”

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