BERLIN -- It can talk, see, drive, and no longer needs a human being to control it. The car of the future -- completely computer-controlled -- is on Berlin's streets.
All summer, researchers from the city's Free University have been testing the car around the German capital.
The vehicle maneuvers through traffic using a sophisticated combination of devices, including a computer, electronics, and a precision satellite-navigation system in the trunk, a camera in the front, and laser scanners on the roof and around the front and rear bumpers.
"The vehicle can recognize other cars on the road, pedestrians, buildings, and trees up to [76.5 yards] around it and even see if the traffic lights ahead are red or green and react accordingly," Raul Rojas, the head of the university's research group for artificial intelligence, said. "The car's recognition and reaction to its environment is much faster than a human being's reaction."
The scientists have worked on the Volkswagen Passat, worth $551,800, with lots of built-in special technology, for four years. Several other groups have been working on such technology, notably Google, which has been testing a robotic Toyota Prius in Nevada.
"There's a big trend for completely computer-controlled cars -- many companies and research centers in several countries are working on it, and it is hard to say who's got the most-developed vehicle at the moment," said Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, an automotive economics professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen.
He estimated that with the technology advances, it could only take another decade for the fully automatic cars to become available to consumers. "Even today's cars are often partially computer-controlled, for example, when it comes to parking or emergency brakes."
However, he said, that besides the technological issues, the legal challenges would be another issue that needed to be regulated, such as who would be responsible when there's an accident.
"However, all in all, one can definitely say that computer-controlled cares will be much safer than human drivers," Mr. Dudenhoeffer said. "Especially if you keep in mind that most of today's accidents are caused by human error."
In Berlin, the researchers received a special permit from the city's security and safety controllers in June to use it in regular traffic -- under the condition that a safety driver sits behind the steering wheel, even if he doesn't touch anything -- not the steering wheel, gas pedals, or brakes.
On a special testing ground, the team has let the car run without anyone on board.
"This kind of technology is the future of mobility," Mr. Rojas said. He said that it may be 30 to 40 years before they become available to the average consumer.