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October 10, 2010

Using cameras, radar and lasers, a fleet of Google robot cars have racked up 140,000 miles on California roads and developers believe the vehicles will not only reduce fuel consumption, but also reduce accidents, says an article in The New York Times.

Seven Toyota Prius vehicles make up the Google autonomous fleet. The cars are equipped with a GPS navigation system and database of speed limits. Google has outfitted each car with a rotating sensor on the roof called LIDAR that creates a three-dimensional map by scanning 200+ feet in every direction. Video cameras assist in determining traffic lights and recognizing moving objects, radar sensors in the front and rear help define position of objects.

Google has not left its cars completely unmanned. A licensed driver traveling in car may over ride the computer at any time. However, the company says the cars have driven more than 1,000 miles independently without human intervention.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau statistics of motor vehicle crashes for 2007, 1,711,000 accidents resulted in injury and 37,200 accidents ended in fatalities. More than four million more crashes involved property damage only without injury or death.

The computer system driving a Google car reacts faster than a human reacts and views the roadway in 360-degree perception. It also does not succumb to human factors that can contribute to a crash including distraction, fatigue or intoxication.

The fleet of Google cars has only encountered one accident in all the miles they have traveled, another vehicle rear-ended a Google car while it stopped at a stoplight.

In and out of congested traffic and zooming down the highway, these computer driven cars may be the way of the future. Google is not the only company working on artificial intelligence for consumer automobiles. An Associated Press article reveals that Volkswagen and Intel Corp. are developing similar technology.

The new technology raises some liability questions. In the event of an accident, who is at fault? Is the vehicle owner or human operator in the vehicle liable, perhaps the software company or equipment manufacturer?

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