Google Reveals Secret Project To Develop Driverless CarsS

Google today revealed a secret project to develop driverless cars, saying its test vehicles had driven 140,000 miles using software, sensors and a human minder. Google CEO Eric Schmidt wasn't kidding; Google believes people shouldn't drive.

Automakers and scientists have tinkered with driver-free cars for years; an Italian university has a caravan of vehicles traversing Asia autonomously for the past several weeks, although they've hit a few difficulties along the way.

Google's project involved engineers from the DARPA Challenges races for autonomous vehicles. The route driven by the vehicles was first scouted for traffic conditions and road signs. The automated cars use laser rangefinders and terrain maps from Google's server to travel the course; a driver and software engineer montior the parade.

Google said its cars, mainly Toyota Priuses that resemble Google Street View vehicles, have driven the Pacific Coast Highway and around Lake Tahoe; Google also says it alerted local police officers about its experiments before they hit the road.

Sebastian Thrun, a Google Distinguished Software Engineer who's heading the project, says driverless vehicles could cut the 1.2 million people killed in traffic accidents every year by half, while hauling more people, cutting pollution and making commuting more productive:

We've always been optimistic about technology's ability to advance society, which is why we have pushed so hard to improve the capabilities of self-driving cars beyond where they are today. While this project is very much in the experimental stage, it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future thanks to advanced computer science. And that future is very exciting.

That's one way of looking at it. Of course, there's the unknown cost, the need for unprecedented reliability, uncharted questions of responsibility and liability, and the all-too-common experiences of GPS-guided maps that show imaginary roads instead of bodies of water. (Photo:AP) [Official Google Blog]