Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun says the U.S. auto industry's best hope for long-term survival is to take a leadership role in developing self-driving cars. Thrun says the United States is lagging behind Europe, Japan, and South Korea in finding ways of using technology to make cars safer, more energy-efficient, and user-friendly. For example, Nissan recently demonstrated a technology called the Robot Agent that sits in the dashboard of a car and uses built-in cameras to read a driver's facial expressions to pick up cues on whether the driver is getting tired or stressed. The robot will then interact with the driver to get the driver in a better mood, or suggest that the driver pull over and rest. Thrun says the United States should be pushing these technologies more aggressively than anyone else. "For me, the American spirit is one of innovation, and I don't see this that right now coming out of Detroit," he says. "This nation should take this moment to think about why we are not the leader in automotive technology." Thrun says that refocusing on technology will not save the industry from the current crisis, but that car company engineers must immediately focus on how technology can be put to better use, particularly robotics. "We can make cars drive themselves," he says. "Human pilots are only allowed to land the planes themselves during good weather. Autopilot must be used in bad weather. With robotics, we could make cars much, much safer."
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