Driving in California could soon mean seeing signs that say "Robots Working." The California Transportation Dept. and the University of California at Davis are developing robotic road-maintenance systems that may save money, reduce congestion, and prevent worker accidents. The first robo-repairer, which should be road-ready next year, uses lasers to spot cracks between the pavement and the shoulder. It then dispenses the right amount of patch material. A single worker can operate it.

Next year, Caltrans plans to test an unmanned machine, based on technology developed for the military, that would combine a hovercraft and a video camera to inspect bridges. Other highway robots on the drawing boards would restripe traffic lanes and identify hazardous materials from a safe distance. Caltrans project manager Thomas West says such machines may be critical to keeping roads in good enough shape to handle ever-increasing traffic.

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