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Hit the road in a driverless car

Driver's ed may soon be dead. Indeed "Ten and two," "shoulder check" and "defensive driving" will all be terms of the past. If engineers have their way, the best thing about your driver's test will be not having to drive at all.

When Sebastian Thrun was 18, he lost his best friend in a car accident. Since then, the director of Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Lab has dedicated his life to putting an end to the 1.2 million needless deaths caused by traffic accidents every year. To that end, he has partnered with Google to develop the world's first commercially available driverless car -- a car that can drive anywhere with no human intervention whatsoever.

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This dream is already a reality. The driverless car has already test-driven over 241,400 kilometres (150,000 miles) from San Francisco to Los Angeles, in cities, on highways, on mountain roads and even on San Francisco's winding Lombard Street, both during the day and at night. Its only accident occurred near Google headquarters in August 2011 -- while a person was driving it.

"Driving accidents are the number one cause of death for young people," Thrun told an audience during his TED Talk in 2011. "Almost all of those accidents are due to human error and not machine error and can definitely be prevented by machines."

How it works
Google's driverless car navigates by using cameras, laser sensors, GPS and radar to create a detailed digital map of its surroundings, including lane markers and traffic signs. During testing, someone drives the car through the route in advance, so that the surrounding data can be recorded and input into the onboard software.

Later, when the car drives itself, those same cameras, laser sensors, radars and GPS systems help determine where other cars are and how fast they are going. The onboard software controls acceleration and deceleration, while the mounted cameras read and interpret traffic lights and street signs. The onboard QuadCore PC processes 1.3 million laser measurements and 20 driving decisions every second, while also processing data from the radar and camera feeds. The car can switch back to manual operation when the driver steps on the break or turns the wheel.

Okay, but is it safe? In its current testing phase, Google certainly thinks so. "We've taken the safety of the public, our drivers, and our equipment with the utmost seriousness since the start of the project," says a Google spokesperson. "Every car has two people inside: a specially-trained safety driver, who monitors road conditions and traffic, and a specially-trained software operator, who monitors the computer system. They can take over control easily and at any time. We also perform heavy software testing before releasing it into cars that will appear in traffic."

 

 

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