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Look Ma, No Hands

I can't help noticing that "Ralph" steers like my brother-in-law Tony. As we pick our way through early morning traffic on the interstate highways around Kansas City, Ralph often jerks the wheel. It's a bit annoying. But I guess you have to expect some quirks in a digital driver that's barely five months old and steers our 1990 Pontiac Trans Sport minivan with the aid of just one eye: a video camera pointed at the highway from behind the rearview mirror.

I'm tagging along on an epic trip. By day's end, the computer program known as Ralph will autonomously navigate for 98.7% of the 644 miles across the Great Plains from Blue Springs, Mo., to Denver--the farthest ever traveled by a "smart" vehicle in one shot. Today is the longest leg of a 2,797-mile journey from Washington to San Diego, dubbed "No Hands Across America" by the Carnegie Mellon University researchers who put Ralph together.