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Who's going to drive you home? Google's self-driving car and the 'smart' road

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, April 30, 2014, 10:05 AM - Google's main role in our lives right now may be guiding us through the digital landscape, but it seems that soon they'll be taking a bigger hand in getting us around in the real world as well.

Besides flying cars, one of the visions of the future that science fiction has given us is robotic cars that can drive themselves (and us) around, quickly and efficiently, eliminating traffic congestion and accidents. We're still a ways off from that vision being fulfilled, but thanks to engineering teams with Google, we're getting closer. Their efforts to produce a self-driving car have been going on for the better part of a decade now, and their latest developments have their robot car driving around the 'mean' streets of Mountain View, Calif.

Just the fact that the car is smoothly navigating the streets, avoiding traffic, obstacles and pedestrians, not to mention precision cornering, is amazing enough. The real 'promise' that shines through here, though, is how the car anticipates the lane-change due to construction in the video. How many times have we been stuck in traffic due to lane closures, either because there wasn't sufficient warning ahead of time or drivers simply didn't heed those warnings, only seeking to merge over at the very last second. With the car doing the driving, and possibly even talking to one another, those situations will be much less common, making traffic flow much smoother as a result.

This is just one big innovation when it comes to the future of driving.

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Last year, Samah El-Tantawy, a PhD graduate from the University of Toronto, designed a 'smart' streetlight system that was used in simulations of Toronto urban traffic. These streetlights gauged how much traffic they were dealing with based on noise, and then used game theory and an interconnected communication system to cooperate as a team. The goal: to 'win the game' of keeping the streets flowing as efficiently as possible. This hasn't seen any real-life application, so far at least, but with the interesting being expressed in it, El-Tantawy's system could save us from hours of sitting in traffic

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, Dutch designer Daan Roosengaarde has come up with a new 'smart' highway that will not only reduce the cost of road building and maintanence, and save us energy, but it will also provide energy to those who need it. His smart highway uses photoluminous paint for the road markings, which absorb sunlight during the day and then glow in the dark all night long, eliminating the need for roadside street lamps. It will even include temperature sensors that will illuminate the highway surface with symbols to tell you about road conditions, such as snow, and induction coils under one of the lanes of the highway will charge electric cars as they drive overtop.

Coming back to flying cars, that's certainly something that's been on people's minds over the years. We actually may not be too far off from that becoming a reality as well. The U.S. company Terrafugia already has a street-legal airplane available, called The Transition. This looks a bit awkward, unfortunately; more like a plane with its wings folded up so it can drive on the road. So, it's not likely to be a big seller. However, a new design in development, called the TF-X, will not only be practical, allowing both street travel and flight, but it's also a bit more of what we'd expect from a true 'flying car'. We won't see it on the market until the mid-2020s, but it might be well worth the wait.

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