Robotic cars that can drive themselves could alleviate modern society’s growing crisis in transportation by making more efficient use of highways, said Sebastian Thrun, a distinguished scientist at Google and a Stanford University professor, on Saturday.
Thrun’s idea is that robotic cars equipped with a sophisticated array of sensors, cameras, mapping databases and massive computing power could more accurately navigate roads and help people to drive closer together without crashing.
This system would create a sort of “car-train” effect on a highway that would pack the highways with more cars, he said at Maker Faire 2011, a hugely popular science, DIY and hackers fair taking place in San Mateo, Calif., this week-end.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to think differently about highway systems,” Thrun told a packed room of about 400 people on a sunny Saturday morning at the fair.
“Think about the car as a medium of mass transit: So, what if our highway-train of the future meant you go on the highway, and there’s a train of very close-driving cars with very low wind drag, fantastic capacity, is twice as efficient as possible as today, and so there is no congestion anymore?”
Drivers could program their cars to drive themselves, and in close formation on the highways, and then switch to manual when they want — for example to get off of the highway, he said.
“If you make cars drive very close together, you could further reduce energy consumption by 20 to 25 percent,” he argued.
Google first revealed that it is working on robotic cars that can drive themselves last October.
The project builds on Thrun’s work at Stanford, where he led a team that built a vehicle that successfully navigated 130 miles though the desert and mountain passes in California and Nevada to win DARPA’s Grand Challenge in 2005.
Google currently maintains a fleet of seven of these modified Priuses that rely on artificial intelligence, Google Maps and computing systems to drive themselves with passengers inside. (They had eight, but one crashed as a result of human error, Thrun said.)
Google’s employees have safely racked up more than 150,000 miles in these cars on public streets, highways, side streets, one-way streets, around Lake Tahoe and even down the hairpin part of San Francisco’s Lombard Street, Thrun said.
He commutes to work every day in one, he added.
The NewYork Times recently reported that Google is lobbying the Nevada state legislature to make such cars legal.
Google has managed to escape legal action for reckless driving with its experiments on public roads so far because the cars generally have two passengers overseeing their activities, The Times reported.