Auto Revolution: A Promising Future for Self-Driving Cars

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Additionally, the controls for vehicles traveling by rail and air are largely automated. At this point, the primary function of the driver of a high-speed train is to regularly press a so-called "dead man's switch," which informs the automatically driven train that the driver is still awake and alert. The captain of a commercial airplane, meanwhile, turns on the autopilot shortly after takeoff, and only takes over the controls again shortly before landing.

What, then, qualifies an overtired traveling salesperson to manually drive his or her car 100 kilometers or more to get home through monotonous, steady traffic on a Friday evening? And is he or she really having any fun in doing so? From Deserts to Drawing Boards

These are the kinds of questions Sebastian Thrun was asking himself even in his days as a computer science student in the German cities of Hildesheim and Bonn. Thrun, a 36-year-old genius in his field, took up a position as a professor at Stanford University, one of the most prestigious universities in the US, and is now a developer at Google. Thrun explains that he lost a friend in a car accident as a teenager and sees this as his motivation for turning to his field, computer science, as the key to accident-free automobiles.

Thrun first attracted attention in 2005, when he participated in a challenge run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research wing of the US military. The DARPA Grand Challenge involved 23 driverless, automatically controlled cars racing through the Mojave Desert, in the American Southwest. The Stanford Racing Team, headed by Thrun, entered the competition with a converted Volkswagen Touareg and steered its way to victory on rough terrain. The first autonomous cars were off-road vehicles by necessity, because they still weren't able to orient themselves well enough to keep them safely on the road.

One young computer entrepreneur was a spectator at the DARPA Grand Challenge that day and took an interest in the new technology. Larry Page, a Google co-founder and something of a rock star in the Internet world, recognized the alluring possibilities of driverless driving. So he immediately hired Thrun and other key members of his team.

Google's fleet of self-driving cars has become an integral part of the mystique surrounding America's most successful Internet firm, which started out as something quirky and has since become rather uncomfortably omnipresent. So far, though, the company has only used its autonomous vehicles as a form of advertisement. It has no official plans to commercialize vehicles, nor does it give the impression that such plans are the works. "We have no need to open up a car company here," Thrun says.

What's more likely is that Google would seek out a partner, thereby giving the ailing American automobile industry with a badly needed technological boost. General Motors, Ford or Chrysler could eventually become a hardware supplier for Google's designs, something of a Foxconn for the automobile world.

Challenges and Progress

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