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3:49 pm
Tue June 18, 2013

Google and Ford have cars driven by robots, but will cars think for themselves someday?

Ford Motor Company recently started testing its cars with the help of robots.

The company does robotic testing on vehicles for durability at the Michigan Proving Grounds in Romeo, according to a recent story from MLive.

Michael Wayland reported that Ford has used robots to test drive eight of its vehicles, including several truck models as well as the Fiesta.

Ford's Dave Payne spoke with Wayland:

Payne said Ford started with trucks to ensure their "Ford Tough" status and move drivers into less strenuous, more technical observations like noise and performance testing.

The durability technology includes a robotic control module installed in the test vehicle that controls vehicle steering, acceleration and braking. The module is set to follow a pre-programmed course, and the vehicles position is tracked via cameras in a central control room and GPS accurate to plus/minus one inch, according to officials.

"The challenge is completing testing to meet vehicle development time lines while keeping our drivers comfortable," he said in a statement. "Robotic testing allows us to do both."

You can see Ford's new full-size transit van being driven in this video:

When a robot drives one of Ford's cars or trucks, it maneuvers the vehicle over all sorts of obstacles that simulate ten years of daily wear and tear.

Although Ford is test driving vehicles with robots, there are other companies that are taking "driver-less cars" to a new level.

About a year ago, Google received permission to allow its autonomous cars on the roads in Nevada.

Google cars can be driven in certain areas in Nevada
Credit user: Jervetson / Flickr

But there are a lot of regulations.

Google cars have red license plates with infinity symbols to distinguish them from other cars on the road. They are also required to have at least two people riding in them at all times, and are only allowed to be driven in certain areas.

Autonomous cars might be safer

Now, officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are starting to push for more autonomous cars. They think these systems could prevent a lot of accidents.

Bloomberg's Angela Greiling Keane reported on the support for the industry:

"We see tremendous promise in these technologies whether you're looking at the current active safety systems in some vehicles today or whether you're looking at a truly autonomous vehicle," David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said today in an interview.

NHTSA officials said using advanced technology, like vehicle-to vehicle communication, could prevent "as many as 80% of crashes involving non-impaired drivers."

Little cars, big plans

So, Ford is using robots to test-drive its vans, and Google is already on the road with its robotically-directed cars.

The next step up is creating cars that can actually think for themselves. 

We're not there yet, but in September we'll be able to play a game where toy cars can do just that.

Apple has taken the game's company, Anki Drive, under its wing. Anki's game is centered around an iPhone and iPod Touch app that controls a toy car as it races with other toy cars.

It sounds like another racing game for kids, but it's way more high tech than that.

As you use your iPhone or iPod to control your car while it races, the car is also thinking on its own. It's making thousands of decisions every second to maneuver around obstacles and find the most efficient path.

The car uses sensors and artificial intelligence software (AI). Essentially, it's a miniature car that can think for itself with human supervision.

Anki Drive will be released in September and will feature cars that are "engineered to think and designed to win."

Adam Clark Estes of Gizmodo explained Anki Drive in an interview with its founders, Mark Palatucci and Hanns Tappeiner. Though Anki is confined to a game right now, it sounds like there could be more coming from the start-up:

"For now we're focused on Anki Drive, but it's really about the underlying technology, the building blocks," said Palatucci, explaining the basics of the AI behind its product. "Once you have that, you can really start doing amazing things in the real world. You can do things you can only see in video games."

What's next, robots cleaning your house? Oh, wait.

- Lucy Perkins, Michigan Radio Newsroom