Google Oct. 9 said it has built technology to make cars drive themselves, an exercise to help reduce traffic accidents, free up motorists' time and ultimately curb carbon emissions.
In what the company is calling a first in robotics research, Google for the past year has sent out Toyota Priuses with trained operators all over California highways and roads, extending to Lake Tahoe.
The cars, shown in action by The New York Times, have logged more than 140,000 miles to date. The Times noted that there are six automated Priuses and one Audi TT. TechCrunch offers this example of a Google-run Prius caught in the wild.
Before an automated car takes the road, Google sends out a driver to map the route and road conditions, logging lane markers and traffic signs to become familiar with terrain. This road information is relayed to software in Google's data centers.
Armed with this intelligence, the automated hybrid cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to "see" other traffic, along with detailed maps. The cars stop at stop signs and traffic lights completely on their own.
A trained safety operator sits in the driver seat to take the wheel in case the software goes buggy, while a Google software engineer rides in the passenger seat to monitor the car's software, Google Distinguished Engineer Sebastian Thrun, who is also director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, explained in a blog post.
That Google would undertake such an ambitious, futuristic-seeming experiment should come as no surprise.
It smacks of the artificial intelligence technology Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have for years talked about building to augment and even replace human work.
Google also sees environmental conservation, as well as personal safety, as two of the outcomes of this self-driving experiment, according to Thrum, who noted that the World Health Organization claims more than 1.2 million lives are lost every year in road traffic accidents.
"We believe our technology has the potential to cut that number, perhaps by as much as half," Thrum said. "We're also confident that self-driving cars will transform car sharing, significantly reducing car usage, as well as help create the new highway trains of tomorrow."
These highway trains will cut energy consumption while increasing the number of people that can be transported on major roads.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt actually alluded to Google's experiment Sept. 28 at TechCrunch Disrupt, where he said that it was a "bug that cars were invented before computers. Your car should drive itself. It just makes sense."
But no one could know just how serious his proposition was two weeks ago.