Like jet-packs, self-driving vehicles have been the staple of our indefinite future at least since the time of our grandparents. In the good old chrome and bakelite heyday, the imagination of science fiction concept artists most often stopped at dreams of clanky robot chauffeurs not much removed from the Tin Man. These ironclad butlers would sit in the car and actually drive as a human would; not the most elegant automation interface, but one that helped humanize technology for people who were just getting used to the idea of automata that could do things on their own.

An amusing descendant of these robots is the "Johnny Cab" from the Arnold Schwarzenegger film "Total Recall" - a disturbing plastic torso which, while endowed with an infectious smile, was a hilariously obtuse and unhelpful source of information for a man pursued by armed assailants.

On a level generally less remarked by pop culture, bespectacled experts in universities and defense facilities have been working for many years to create actual self-driving vehicles. The results, until recently unsuccessful, have generally taken the form of wire-studded boxes and pivoting roof cameras. The major problem in this endeavor has been computing technology - computers, until recently, have simply not been powerful enough, and the software - not sophisticated enough, to perform the highly varied and uncertain terrain recognition and situational awareness tasks that human drivers can do without thinking.

Until this technology became viable, most self-driving cars were either limited to extremely narrow functions, such as parking, or designed to follow a pre-determined route, set either by visual markings on the road, or embedded radios or magnets. This had the obvious disadvantages of, first, needing to retool long stretches of infrastructure to make them suitable for automatic vehicles, and second, the inability of these vehicles to deal with any unexpected situations.

Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on how paranoid you are about the possibility of a ruthless robot takeover of the globe), in recent years, computing technology has caught up to the point where it's not outside of the realm of possibility to have a machine respond in real-time to the challenges of driving both off-road and in full traffic. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which seems to have a hand in just about every advanced engineering project, kicked off 2004 by conducting a well-publicized desert race for driverless vehicles, with a cool million dollars as the prize purse.

The first race was not quite a success - to the mirth of skeptics, none of the vehicles completed the 150-mile course, and, in fact, not one getting beyond 12 miles in. The laughter was silenced the very next year, when all but one of the contestants beat this distance; moreover, 5 vehicles actually completed the full course.

The latest advance in driverless vehicles has been the unveling by Google of its very own, city-ready vehicle that is undergoing tests and certification. The fascinating vehicle has driven, with minimal human intervention, over thousands of miles of American roads, both with and without traffic (no word on whether it took pictures while rolling down the street). Google has just been granted a patent for the technology that allows the vehicle to transition between human-driven and driverless modes.

Legislators are still uncomfortable with the innovations; with massive liability issues hanging over the driverless car industry, it will probably be a while until a 100% unmanned car is allowed on the roads. As with all technological progress, however, this is probably only a matter of time. One has to wonder if the whole endeavor will go meta, and we will have driverless auto shipping companies delivering driverless cars.

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