Remember when we wrote about how robot-controlled cars could save us lots of gas money? Turns out they could save our lives, too -- and what's more, the whole endeavor is becoming less science-fiction theoretical by the minute. A team of engineers at Stanford have developed a prototype called "Junior," a VW Passat equipped with a trunkload of computers and GPS receivers, and a bevy of roof-, side- and front-mounted laser range-finders to image obstacles in 360 degrees. What all this means is, unlike TV's Knight Rider, there's nobody standing just out of the shot holding a remote control; this baby does all its own stunts.

Therefore, says project leader Sebastian Thrun, robotic cars like Junior could take a lot of the burden off of US highways. It seems that only about 8% of American highway surface is used at peak hours -- the trouble isn't the amount of surface area we've paved, it's how we use it. All this stop-and-go, unpredictable, emotional driving would be a thing of the past, and cars, suddenly, would function a lot more like trains. Really convenient trains that would go anywhere you told them to go, while you read the paper, work on your laptop or take a snooze. Added bonus: if the robots work like they're supposed to, traffic fatalities would be greatly reduced. (Even if they malfunctioned occasionally, I can't imagine it would be worse than what we've already got on our freeways today -- in addition to countless wrecks, there have been several road-rage-related shootings on LA's 710 freeway recently.)

Some specs on what makes Junior tick, after the jump.

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