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Google's robot car
Out of the blue and in a post titled “What we are driving at” written by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun of Grand and Urban Challenge fame (at least to the public because he is otherwise very well known in research circles), it was unveiled yesterday that Google has been developing robotic cars for urban environments. And they have been testing these autonomous vehicles in our cities.

Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research.

The self-driving cars come equipped with laser, radar and vision sensors much like the cars that competed in the Urban Challenge a few years ago. Google has automated a handful of Priuses and an Audi TT as part of this project. Stanford is also preparing an Audi TTS for autonomously driving to the top of Pikes Peak.

I started this article by saying that the announcement came out of the blue but we actually suggested that this project was in the works back in 2007 when Google licensed some of Stanford’s technology used in DARPA’s competitions and also hired professor Thrun who in the past was rumored to be working on his own technology start up with the aim of mapping cities.

So what should we expect the outcome of such a project to be? First of all, expect near real-time updates of Google maps. Second, expect that these technologies will eventually become available for all cars which will drastically change the way we commute using our favorite means of transportation. Autonomous cars promise to eliminate road congestion allowing more cars to share the road by driving closer together. But before any of this becomes a reality, it has to be shown that the robotic vehicles are safe especially in the early days when these marvels of technology will have to share the road with human drivers.

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