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Google's Driverless Car project is personal for engineer Sebastian Thrun

April 5, 2011 |  8:07 pm

Google driverless car

Sebastian Thrun is on a mission to get people out of the driver's seat.

"As a boy, I loved cars. When I turned 18, I lost my best friend to a car accident, like this," Thrun said, snapping his fingers before an audience at the TED 2011 conference in Long Beach last month. "And then I decided I'd dedicate my life to saving 1 million people every year. Now, I haven't succeeded, so this is just a progress report. But I need to tell you a little bit about self-driving cars."

Thrun is a Stanford University robotics professor and a project leader on Google's Driverless Car effort -- a system that enables cars to drive on their own, safely, without human input. So far, Google's driverless cars have safely logged more than 140,000 miles on California roads, Thrun said in his TED Talk presentation, which can be seen in the video below.

While Thrun's contributions to the Google project are personally motivated, the engineer believes that the technology can eradicate traffic jams and curb fuel consumption, as well as save humans now-wasted time and prevent needless deaths.

"Now, I can't get my friend Harold back to life, but I can do something for all the people who've died," Thrun said at TED. "Did you know that driving accidents are the No. 1 cause of death for young people? And do you realize that almost all of those are due to human error and not machine error and can therefore be prevented by machines?

"Do you realize that we could change the capacity of highways by a factor of two or three if we didn't rely on human precision on staying in the lane but on robotic precision, and thereby drive a little bit closer together on a little bit narrower lanes and do away with all traffic jams on highways?" 

Thrun said he foresees a future in which driverless cars become the norm.

"I'm really looking forward to a time when generations after us look back and say how ridiculous it was that humans were driving cars."

A nod goes to Autoblog, which uncovered the YouTube video of Thrun's TED speech Tuesday.

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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

twitter.com/nateog

Image: A Toyota Prius equipped with Google's Driverless Car technology drives in San Francisco. Credit: Google / TED

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