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Google puts robots on the road with self-driving cars

Some Mondays start with news about a new netbook, or Windows Phone 7. Today, Google has developed cars that drive themselves.


Some Mondays start with news about a new netbook or an incremental update to a website you don't use. Other Mondays bring the news that Google is working on self-driving cars. This is one of those happy days: Googlebots are driving Googlemobiles without any human input -- and the robots are already on the roads.

The man in the project's driving seat, Sebastian Thrun, today revealed in a blog post that the cars have driven from "our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They've driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe."

Puzzled Californians have been spotting the modified fleet for several months as Google secretly tested the seven automated cars. Like the Street View fleet, each car is an eco-friendly Toyota Prius with navigation knobs on -- there's also one Audi TT -- and all the cars are staffed by an engineer ready to take over driving in emergencies. Local police have been notified of the tests, which have seen the cars cover over 140,000 miles. More than 1,000 miles have been clocked up with no human involvement whatsoever.

The cars use video cameras, radar sensors and the power of Google's data centres to crunch information and keep them on the straight and narrow. A laser range-finder feels out the traffic around them. There has been one accident, but that was the result of a stupid fleshy meatbag in an old-fashioned dumb car rear-ending the Googlemobile. We'd love to see the puny human's face when he tried to swap his insurance details.

With a Google robot in charge of your commute, you'll be free to catch up on work, telly or even a nap. You'll have full control of the stereo and no-one to complain about all the sweet wrappers all over the floor. Meanwhile, looking at the bigger picture, Google envisions the "highway trains of tomorrow".

We can't help but note the interesting timing of the news. If someone had asked us what could steal the headlines from the launch of Windows Phone 7 today, we'd have settled for nothing less than Apple inventing hoverboards or Adobe developing time travel. Robots cars? Yup, that'll work. Great timing, Big G.

How do you feel about robot cars pootling about on your highways and byways? The technology for android automobiles -- or even Android automobiles -- is reckoned to be at least 8 years away from public use, but is old news to us: we're already bossed around by a malevolent artificial intelligence in the shape of CNET UK's own supercomputer, assisted by the Darth Vader of the CNET empire that is the fiendish MegaTimer.

Image: Ramin Rahimian for The New York Times