Driverless Prius takes to the streets of San Francisco

Are jetpacks just around the corner?

Published September 19, 2008 9:28PM (EDT)

We may not have flying jetpacks, monorails or anything else that was supposed to have arrived by the early 21st century -- but we do have something that may be a fair bit more practical: cars that drive themselves.

Earlier this month, on Sept. 7, a small group of researchers, their family and friends, a film crew from the Discovery Channel, a police escort and Declan McCullagh of CNET accompanied a tricked-out Toyota Prius that drove itself without any human control from Pier 7 in San Francisco, merging onto the Bay Bridge and exiting at Treasure Island, on a quiet early Sunday morning.

While this was the first real-world test for any driverless vehicle (it's actually illegal to test these types of machines on California roads), Anthony Levandowski, the car's creator, made sure that it was prepped with all kinds of GPS data and laser sensors to be able to judge where it was relative to other cars and how to recognize things like traffic signals and other real-life obstacles.

Levandowski, 28, earned his chops while an undergraduate and grad student at UC-Berkeley a few years ago. He was part of a grad student team that created the only two-wheeled entry in DARPA's Grand Challenge two years ago, known as Ghostrider. While they didn't win the race, he has been determined to build a truly autonomous car ever since.

These days, he works as a software engineer for Google, but used to work at the Berkeley-based 510 Systems, a robotics company that builds computer systems in use for machine control. Levandowski, though, also has his own small startup -- a side project, really -- called Anthony's Robots, which was officially founded in June.

Suzanna Musick, the CEO of 510 Systems, who rode in the convoy on the morning of the test, told me that, sadly, we shouldn't expect a buyable version of this anytime soon.

"Right now, it's still too early that it could be deployable," she said. "I think it's another proof of concept, even though it may not be ready for prime time."

So how did the car do in its first real-world trial? Musick said that when the car was merging off the lower deck of the Bay Bridge, it got a little dinged up, scratching the left side of the car.

'Tis a small price to pay for a taste of the future.

By Cyrus Farivar

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