Auto Revolution: A Promising Future for Self-Driving Cars

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"Robotic cars are still too polite, which means they can sometimes be a nuisance," admits Doglov, the Google programmer. The vehicles always err on the side of caution, braking for cardboard boxes and never cutting into a stream of traffic where each car is traveling closely behind the one in front of it -- something drivers sometimes need to do, because they can otherwise end up sitting for hours on a highway on-ramp, waiting for an opening.

But humans won't always trump computers even when it comes to distinguishing between boxes and baby carriages, one of humanity's last bastions in its competition against artificial intelligence. When Thrun says this technology will be ready to go into mass production in five years, he's assuming that computing power will continue to multiply -- and that's a realistic assumption. Though high, the standards that need to met are attainable.

Pioneering Steps at Daimler

However, this isn't the first time that computer technology and automotive engineering have clashed. These are two industries with two very different approaches to the issue of susceptibility to failure. If a home computer crashes, the user simply boots it up again. But if the same thing occurs to the system that controls a car's safety functions, it could be life or death.

"Before we certify that a new driver assistance system is ready for mass production, it needs to have completed millions of kilometers of test driving without any errors," says Jochen Hermann, head of development for this product sector at Mercedes-Benz. The Stuttgart-based Daimler subsidiary is viewed as the founder of the automotive industry, and still seen as the keeper of the Grail when it comes to safety technology. Many pioneering driver assistance systems, from anti-locking brakes to ESC to brake assist technology, all had their breakthroughs here in Mercedes-Benz's research and development division.

Thrun, the Google developer, also has the highest respect for the company. "Mercedes does beautiful work, absolutely," he says. Such comments would seem to imply that Daimler might well number among Google's preferred potential partners for implementing its technological ideas. But Daimler might not even need Google at all.

The company has also developed its own cars with self-driving technology, the first of which will hit the market this summer, when Mercedes-Benz launches the next generation of its S-Class luxury sedan.

The S-Class is the company's flagship model, and the one Daimler often uses to introduce its latest developments. Mercedes took a decisive step toward autonomous driving, for example, with the 1998 S-Class, which introduced Distronic, a cruise control system with sensors for measuring and maintaining the vehicle's distance from the car in front of it. The 2013 model will go a step further by being capable of steering itself, making it the first to fulfill all the criteria of fully automated driving.

It will do so, though, only under one specific set of circumstances: in congested traffic. When the vehicle is traveling at walking speed, the driver can choose to switch on cruise control and take his or her feet off the pedals and hands off the steering wheel. The car then does everything itself, automatically accelerating, braking and steering. Simple sensors and cameras to monitor lane markings, along with radar equipment to measures the distance from the car in front of it, are enough to allow the vehicle to perform these functions.

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