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Google Could Own the Road in Eight Years

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Autonomous vehicles safely cruising down the highway might have been a lofty pipe dream in years past, but Google seems to be inching closer to a viable and marketable self-driving car.

According to the New York Times, secret trial runs of the robot automobiles have already been conducted with very positive results. So positive, in fact, the tests are now done publicly.

The camera and sensor-equipped Toyota Prius used by Google engineers followed a route programmed into its GPS navigation system. Since the GPS system knows the speed limit of the roads, the car was able to keep within the law. In this particular journey, the AI-car merged into traffic on Highway 101, drove through Silicon Valley, and showed exceptional driving skill -- stopping at red lights, pausing at stop signs, and addressing obstacles and other vehicles quickly and appropriately.

At all times, a driver sits behind the wheel in case an emergency intervention is necessary. By touching a red button, the steering wheel, or the brake pedal, the car is immediately under the driver's control. For the session that New York Times writer John Markoff was present, he noticed the driver needed to only do this twice -- when a bicyclist ran a red light and when a car ahead stopped to pull into a parking space. But Markoff noted "the car seemed likely to have prevented an accident itself."

The ramifications of streets filled with self-driving cars are countless. More vehicles can occupy the road given their instantaneous response time. Fuel consumption will decline by eliminating aggressive drivers and allowing lighter vehicles to prevail. Morning commutes could come with some extra shut-eye. Drunk driving arrests and injuries will sharply decline, as will texting-related mishaps. Cars can drop passengers off at the door of a bar, then spend the next hour looking for a spot on their own. Then they could be summoned via an iPhone app like Michael Knight's wristwatch. And should the need occur, autos can be delivered from one residence to another.

But as of now, state laws demand that a driver be present and alert at all times. So depending on the technology's progression -- and there's a lot of work that still needs to be done -- it could take much longer for a fully dependable autonomous car to evolve out of one that drives while you watch.

The wait will be agonizing for both models, but according to Dr. Sebastian Thrun of Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, optimistic predictions place the robot car's deployment at around eight years away.

Let me know when that happens, but give me a bit to respond. I'll likely be asleep on the Path train.
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