Hey! Who's Driving This Thing?

Google, the Internet search and mapping company, has developed a car that can steer without a driver

October 11, 2010

Sometimes reality is stranger than science fiction: Google is road-testing cars that steer, stop and start without a human driver. The goal is to "help prevent traffic accidents, free up people's time and reduce carbon emissions," says Sebastian Thrun. He is the project leader for the driverless car, or Carbot.

By developing the car and the software that drives it, Google wants to change how people get from place to place. Eric Schmidt, one of the company's top officials, said, "Your car should drive itself. It just makes sense."

The test cars, which are tricked-out Toyota Priuses, always have a person behind the wheel to make sure the software that steers the car is working. And if anything should go wrong, the human can immediately start driving.

Look! No Hands!

So far, the driverless autos have gone about 140,000 miles on California roads and highways without people taking over the driving very much. Seven test cars have gone a total of 1,000 miles without a human touching the controls at all. Many of the roads on which the cars have traveled successfully have been very busy or full of curves that challenge human drivers. The autos' software makes it possible to know speed limits, traffic patterns and road maps. The vehicles use radar, lasers and video cameras to find other cars and avoid people crossing streets.

There has only been one accident, during the testing. And in that case, the Carbot was hit from behind by a human driver when Google's car was stopped at a red light. Engineers say the driverless cars are safer than autos with people behind the wheel because the computers react more quickly than humans.

More Time for Relaxing

What would people do if they didn't have to pay attention to the road while driving? Google may hope that they'll surf the web while riding from place to place, notes Rob Enderle, who studies businesses and how they operate.

The Carbot is still in very early testing stages. Experts agree that it will be years before you'll be able to buy one. But it's likely that one day you will be sitting in the driver's seat of a driverless car. And instead of keeping your eyes peeled on the road, you could be checking your digital reader for your favorite book, texting your friends or just enjoying the passing scenery. When the auto was first invented it was called a "horseless carriage." Now it seems it's time for the "driverless carriage" to be part of our lives.


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