Robots behind the wheel?

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California has recently legalized self-driving cars, joining Nevada and Florida as states that allow cars to drive without a human being behind the wheel!

If you haven’t already heard about these driverless cars, here’s the story: Google has been developing robotic vehicles that can navigate both urban settings and highways completely independent of a human driver.

Google now has a fleet of about a dozen driverless cars, made up of modified Toyota Priuses, an Audi TT, and a Lexus RX450h. These cars have already logged over 300,000 miles of test driving in Nevada and California. Check out this clip of the driverless car in action:

How do Google driverless cars work?

The Google driverless car detects its surroundings using video cameras and radar sensors, navigates using GPS and information from Google Maps, and makes decisions using artificial intelligence.

These autonomous cars boast several advantages, such as 360-degree perception, quicker-than-human reaction time, and invulnerability to distractions or fatigue. The driver behind the wheel can activate manual override anytime with just the push of a button or by touching the steering wheel or brake.

Not a single accident in 300,000 miles

Google claims its driverless cars’ fast reaction time and sensors mean safer driving and fewer crashes. In 300,000 miles of testing, there have only been two accidents involving a Google driverless vehicle, neither of which was caused by the technology. (For the sake of comparison, an average driver can expect one or one-and-a-half serious accidents per million miles driven .)

In one accident, the Google driverless car was a rear-ended by another vehicle. In the other accident, Google says the car was being operated manually by the test driver and blamed the five-vehicle collision on human error.

A safe alternative to risky driving?

If driverless cars are safer, vehicles could eventually be built lighter and thus be more fuel-efficient. Quick reaction times also means vehicles could drive closer together on highways, allowing more vehicles on the road and reducing traffic.

Google is also optimistic that this technology could provide a means of transportation for elderly or disabled people. Driverless cars might even be a safe alternative to driving distracted, tired, or under the influence–instead of texting behind the wheel or driving drunk or tired, people could let a driverless car navigate home.

But even with the promise of all these benefits, critics point out that there is still the possibility of malfunctions, not to mention questions of ethics and liability in accidents.

Are autonomous cars the future of driving?

For now, Google driverless cars are probably still a ways off from being commercially available, but Google’s not the only company that’s been dabbling in autonomous vehicle technology.

Mercedes Benz’s 2013 S-Class will include an autonomous driving feature that can navigate during slow traffic jams at speeds up to 25 mph. Audi also plans to debut a similar autonomous feature called Traffic Jam Assistant that can drive at speeds of up to 37 mph in traffic. For higher speeds, GM’s Cadillac division has developed SuperCruise, a self-steering and cruise feature for use on highways, which it expects to roll out in 2015.

With all this new technology on the horizon, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has predicted that 75% of cars on the road in 2040 will be driverless cars, with a robot behind the wheel. But even if IEEE’s prediction comes true, that’s still almost 30 years away. In the meantime, you’ll still need to learn how to drive before you can get behind the wheel .

A brief timeline of robots behind the wheel

October 2010: Google announces its work on driverless cars on its official blog, with over over 140,000 miles of test driving logged.
December 2011: Google secures a U.S. patent for a landing strip that switches the driverless car between manual and autonomous modes.
May 2012: The Nevada DMV issues the first license to an autonomous car, a Google Toyata Prius.
April 2012: Florida legalizes driverless cars.
June 2012: Nevada legalizes driverless cars.
August 2012: Google’s driverless cars log over 300,000 miles of testing.
September 2012: California legalizes driverless cars.