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Google Aims for Auto Industry With Cars That Drive Themselves

The self-driving cars are still in the experimental stage


Google‘s (NASDAQ: GOOG) software is inching its way into every part of modern American life. The Android runs out phones, we browse the web using Chrome, our email is stored in Gmail’s massive server cloud, and we’re keeping our businesses organized with Google Documents. Soon, if the Mountain View, California company has their way, we’ll be using Google TV to find what we want to watch in our living room. When we need precise directions, we use Google Maps. Of course, thanks to the company’s latest software project, we won’t need directions when we go for a drive. Google’s made cars that drive themselves.

In a post on the Official Google Blog, software engineer Sebastian Thrun announced that Google has developed its own line of the Toyota (NYSE: TM) Prius that can drive itself. The modified hybrid cars use multiple radar sensors, video cameras, and laser range finders in conjunction with Google’s data centers to sense the road around the vehicles to drive safely and accurately. While the cars have never hit the road without a human being inside to take over if the machines fail, Google’s cars have driven themselves over 140,000 miles across California, from the congested highways of Los Angeles to the coast and on to San Francisco’s scenic gateway, the Golden Gate bridge. The driverless cars are still in the experimental phase but Google’s announcement indicates that they’re hoping to drum up interest in their vision of robotic transportation.

Google isn’t new to the automotive industry. This past summer, General Motors announced that it had partnered with Google to build an OnStar application for the Android operating system. The Android OnStar app doesn’t drive your car for you, but it does automate many of the vehicles functions. Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, and GMC owners who subscribe to OnStar can use their Android-based phone to unlock and then turn on their vehicle, activate an alarm, or even use the car’s internal computer for maintenance diagnostics like checking oil levels and tire pressure.

The exclusivity of these features limits Google’s reach into consumers’ garages, but between this partnership with GM and the announcement that the company is helping develop a line of automated hybrids indicate a strong interest in breaking into the automobile business. It also shows that Google has its sights on stealing away even more of Research in Motion‘s (NASDAQ: RIMM) business. Android smartphones like Motorola‘s (NYSE: MOT) Droid X have stolen a significant percentage of the smartphone market from RIM’s line of BlackBerry phones, making headway not just with consumers but RIM’s bread and butter, the enterprise market. QNX Software Systems, now a fully owned Research in Motion subsidiary, did major business providing operating systems and computer interfaces for cars and SUVs. BMW’s and Volkswagen subsidiary Audi, have both used QNX operating systems in their vehicles. In a few years, though, those luxury cars may be using a new version of Google Android to escort their passengers about without a need to drive.

The self-driving Google cars were developed by an all-star line up of engineers, software designers, and other specialists who have competed in the DARPA Challenges, a series of U.S. Government run challenges for experimental, self-driving vehicles. The team includes Urban Challenge winner Chris Urmson of Carnegia Mellon University, Grand Challenge winner Mike Montemerlo of Stanford, and Anthony Levandowski who also built an automated Prius, albeit one whose chief function was delivering pizzas.

As of this writing, Anthony Agnello did not own a position in any of the stocks named here.

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