Not since Henry Ford's Model T brought driving to the American masses at the turn of the 20th century has a motor vehicle so promised to revolutionize global transportation. Hydrogen and electric cars once seemed poised to fill that void, but their costs and upkeep have proved prohibitive. Enter the driverless car, the brainchild of Google fellow and Stanford University computer scientist Sebastian Thrun -- and now street-legal.
How radical is it? Thrun has in effect reimagined the future of cars -- as more about software than hardware. Relying on high-powered sensors and artificial-intelligence software that mimics human decisions, Thrun's cars can maneuver on and off highways and through rush-hour traffic all by themselves. (One even made it up San Francisco's famously winding Lombard Street.) The self-driving cars' growing legion of advocates says the vehicles could completely overhaul the way we think about transportation, making it more efficient, cheaper, greener, and safer. "This is an opportunity to fix a really colossal, big problem for society," the German-born Thrun says. Robot drivers don't drink, get distracted, or fall asleep behind the wheel -- and their reflexes are measured in milliseconds. Thrun thinks the cars could halve the number of annual road deaths, now at more than 1.2 million worldwide. And because the safer driverless vehicles could be built smaller and lighter, they could also radically reduce fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.
The journey toward a self-driving vehicle began back when Thrun and his team of Stanford researchers spent a year in the California desert designing the Stanley robot car to compete in a 2005 Pentagon road race aimed at sparking innovation. Stanley took home the $2 million prize after successfully traveling 131 miles across the Mojave Desert.
Today, the driverless cars of 2012 are hitting the streets. In August, Google's fleet of experimental cars logged its 300,000th mile on public roads. That followed Nevada's move in March to issue the first license for a self-driving car. As of September, Google's version of Stanley was also cleared to drive in California, the most populous U.S. state and one that historically sets the standard for how cars are built worldwide. Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, and Volvo are all designing or testing self-driving vehicles now.
Plenty of technical hurdles remain -- not to mention the need to update current traffic laws that assume a human driver -- before the cars are produced for a mass market. Still, it's no longer a stretch to imagine that someday soon, if you're driving on Highway 101 between San Jose and San Francisco, you just might see Thrun finally starting to relax behind the wheel of his robo-powered Prius.
Reading list: Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. Best idea: New approach to desalinization of seawater. Worst idea: Cutting taxes for the rich helps poor people. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Absolutely.