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For Safer Self-Driving Cars, the Race Track May Hold the Key

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SAN JOSE, California — In the United States alone, nearly 5.7 million motor vehicle accidents were reported in 2013. More than 30,000 of those crashes were fatal, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Driverless" or autonomous cars now under development by Google and various automakers might make the roads safer while also reducing fuel use and air pollution.

Chris Gerdes and his team at Stanford University have developed several "robocars," including a computer-controlled buggy called X1, and a souped-up Audi TTS known as Shelley that has tackled the Bonneville Salt Flats, Pikes Peak, and race tracks, hitting a top speed of 150 miles per hour.

The goal, said Gerdes, who described his research at the AAAS Annual Meeting, is to create a car that autonomously navigates a variety of environments as safely as an expert race-car driver. The researchers have attached electrodes to legendary racers to track their brain activity and vital signs while driving.

"By looking at race-car drivers, we are actually looking at the same mathematical problem that we need for a lot of safety on the highways," Gerdes said.