Robot Cars Invade Calif., on Orders From Google

Stanford Racing Team's leader Sebastian Thrun holds a $2-million dollar check as he catches a ride on top of Stanley # 03, a tricked-out Volkswagen Touareg R5 after his team was declared the official winner of the DARPA Grand Challenge 2005 in Primm, Nevada, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2005. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) AP

Stanford Racing Team leader Sebastian Thrun holds a $2 million dollar check as he catches a ride on top of Stanley #03, a tricked-out Volkswagen Touareg R5, after his team was declared the official winner of the DARPA Grand Challenge 2005 in Primm, Nev., Sunday, Oct. 9, 2005.
AP/Damian Dovarganes
Google has been testing self-driving cars on roads in California, according to a report, and so far they've avoided everything but a minor fender bender--caused by a human-driven car.

The New York Times reports that seven test cars have traveled 1,000 miles without need for human intervention (a driver has been stationed behind the wheel just in case, accompanied by a technician to monitor the navigation system), and that they've covered more than 140,000 miles with the human chaperone stepping in only occasionally. One of the cars was even able to safely make its way down Lombard Street in San Francisco, the fabled "crookedest street in the world," the Times says.

Google's robot car is equipped with artificial-intelligence software; a rotating sensor on its roof, which can scan more than 200 feet in all directions to create a 3D map of the car's environs; a video camera mounted behind the windshield, which helps the navigation system spot pedestrians, bicyclists, and traffic lights; three radar devices on the front bumper, and one in the back; and a sensor on one of the wheels that allows the system to determine the car's position on the 3D map, the Times says. The car also features a GPS device and a motion sensor. The car follows a route programmed into the GPS system, and it can be instructed to drive cautiously, or more aggressively.

Engineers say robot cars aren't susceptible to drowsiness or driving under the influence, and that eventually they might allow for more cars on the road, because they can drive closer to other vehicles, and less fuel consumption, because their safety would allow them to be made lighter, with less defensive armor, the Times says.

The man behind the project, Sebastian Thrun, a Google engineer and co-inventor of Google's Street View mapping project, was also behind the autonomous auto that won the $2 million prize in the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, a contest to see if a driverless vehicle could successfully navigate nearly 150 miles in the California desert.

The Google researchers said that at the moment they don't have a plan for marketing the system, the Times says. Thrun is a promoter of the idea of robot cars making roads safer and helping to cut down on energy costs, as is Google co-founder Larry Page, the Times reports.

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