If you've been wondering where your jet-pack is, you may have to settle for Google's self-driving car. It's a research project (not in mass production yet), but test cars are already on the road and the New York Times reports that the cars have already driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and over 140,000 miles with "only occasional human control." Yes, engineers have been in the cars the whole time, and paying attention, but it's clear where this is going.

The robo-cars operate by driving themselves while interfacing with a human driver using speech, warning the human of possible problems. The human can take over if needed. Yes, humans are now the backseat drivers of robots -- it was bound to happen sooner or later. The article discusses some of the problems inherent in having robots drive cars (like who's liable when there's an accident), and notes that they're not ready for the mass market yet.

From the article:

Robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated, the engineers argue. They speak in terms of lives saved and injuries avoided -- more than 37,000 people died in car accidents in the United States in 2008. The engineers say the technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing cars to drive more safely while closer together. Because the robot cars would eventually be less likely to crash, they could be built lighter, reducing fuel consumption. But of course, to be truly safer, the cars must be far more reliable than, say, today's personal computers, which crash on occasion and are frequently infected....

During a half-hour drive beginning on Google's campus 35 miles south of San Francisco last Wednesday, a Prius equipped with a variety of sensors and following a route programmed into the GPS navigation system nimbly accelerated in the entrance lane and merged into fast-moving traffic on Highway 101, the freeway through Silicon Valley.

It drove at the speed limit, which it knew because the limit for every road is included in its database, and left the freeway several exits later. The device atop the car produced a detailed map of the environment.

The car then drove in city traffic through Mountain View, stopping for lights and stop signs, as well as making announcements like "approaching a crosswalk" (to warn the human at the wheel) or "turn ahead" in a pleasant female voice....

Read the rest and check out the video. The cars even make a Star Trek style sound (the "going to Warp" sound) when the autopilot engages.

Perhaps the most surprising line of the story: "The car can be programmed for different driving personalities -- from cautious, in which it is more likely to yield to another car, to aggressive, where it is more likely to go first." I, for one, welcome our new robotic car overlords.