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Robocars of the day

The news that google is running a fleet of 7 autonomous cars is making its way around the internets this week. The cars use radar, LIDAR, image recognition, some sort of (gyroscopic?) position estimation, and I’d assume GPS as well. Just as with us humans, it’s going to require a radically multi-modal approach to build robots that can truly sense their place in the world, as well as clever algorithms to integrate the data. This is front page news in the New York Times people; when The Grey Lady picks up a tech story you know the tech its reporting on is going mainstream. We’re even at the point where we can start arguing about whether or not this is legal.

And now at Freie University in Germany they’re taking it one step further with autonomous taxis that can be called from an iPad. It doesn’t seem like this is being widely deployed, but it’s only a matter of time. This is the sort of real application I’m looking for. The geek in me loves to see projects like the one at google solving the interesting technical AI challenges, but all this really starts to matter when we have a concrete vision of the technology’s effect on the real world. My estimate for how long it’s going to take for me to get a self-driving car has been revised downward.

When discussing this with someone the other day, I was reminded of a part in Vernor Vinge’s excellent book Rainbow’s End. If you haven’t read it, there’s a version online here. I couldn’t find the exact passage, but there’s a part where one of the characters is looking out into the road, and sees two separate parts of the street, one for high-speed, efficient and autonomous cars, and another for people who want to drive themselves. Of course, the speed limit on the human driven section is much lower. I’m sure we’ll get there eventually, but we’ll have some interesting times to go through first, both technologically and legally. There have been plenty of milestones for robotic cars in the past year, but I’m still waiting for one of the more unpleasant ones; the first person hurt or killed by a computer-driven car.

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