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Google is testing self-driving cars

October 10, 2010 |  2:40 pm

At the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, Google CEO Eric Schmidt declared: "It's a bug that cars were invented before computers. Your car should drive itself. It just makes sense."

The Internet giant revealed Saturday in a blog post that it has been hard at work on that bug: It's road-testing cars that are driven by artificial intelligence software, not humans.

The cars have traveled 140,000 miles on major California roads (where they have occasionally been spotted), navigating speed limits and traffic patterns on San Francisco's Lombard Street and Los Angeles' Hollywood Boulevard as well as the Pacific Coast Highway, the post said. They use video cameras, radar sensors and lasers to spot traffic and follow maps.

The idea is to "prevent traffic accidents, free up people's time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use," project leader Sebastian Thrun wrote in the blog post.

The cars are manned by trained software engineers who can take over in case of a problem. The New York Times had a detailed description of the project in a report this weekend.

It's unclear how Google plans to profit from the venture or how Google investors will respond to spending on it. With $30 billion in cash reserves, Google, which reports its quarterly earnings this week, has had a free hand to experiment with new business ideas to build on its dominance in Internet search advertising.

This is just one of the futuristic ideas pushed by the company that spent $2.8 billion on research and development in 2009. It has explored bringing broadband to underserved areas, sponsored a $30-million prize to land a robot on the moon and received federal approval to buy and sell energy on the open market.

Google predicts that its self-driving cars -- which are still very much in the experimental phase -- could reduce traffic accidents and save about 600,000 lives a year worldwide. It also predicts these cars would lower carbon emissions.

Let's just hope that if computers drive our cars, they don't crash.

-- Jessica Guynn

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