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updated 3/24/2009 4:59:51 PM ET 2009-03-24T20:59:51

Drivers willing to turn braking and acceleration over to a computer could save nearly 25 percent on their annual gas bills, say the British developers of an advanced new cruise control system.

Known as Sentience, the system uses GPS technology coupled with detailed topographical information to control the gas pedal and brakes. If alone on the road, all the driver has to do is steer.

"The car speeds up, slows down at speed humps, and stops at all the junctions without the driver having to intervene," said David Overton of Ordnance Survey, the U.K. government agency that provided the map information for the Sentience Project.

"All the driver has to do is stick the phone on the dash and off you go," said Overton.

The Sentience system uses a GPS-equipped smart phone, on the cellular phone network Orange, to determine the vehicle's position. Wireless Bluetooth technology links the phone to the other piece of hardware necessary for Sentience, the r-cube, developed by the Ricardo company. The r-cube controls the vehicle's acceleration and braking.

For the initial tests, the Sentience team used an imported Ford Escape hybrid.

The maps generated by Ordnance Survey include everything from speed bumps to school zones. When a Sentience-equipped vehicle approaches, say, a roundabout, the software automatically slows the vehicle down enough to take the turn. Once the turn is complete, the software then accelerates the vehicle in the most fuel-efficient way.

Initial tests indicate that drivers can save anywhere between five percent and 24 percent on fuel costs. The wide variation in the numbers comes from the type of car -- hybrid vehicles will save more fuel than those with internal combustion engines alone -- and from the driver's driving style.

On an empty road with no other vehicles, the Sentience system could completely control a vehicle.

With other cars on the road, the driver must control acceleration and braking because the Sentience system is not equipped with the real-time location of all the other vehicles on the road. Future versions of Sentience could be, said Overton, although no final decision on that possibility has been made.

The other option is to have Sentience, or a program like it, installed on every car on the road, said Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Joseph Sussman, an expert on intelligent automotive systems.

"These technologies are quite positive from the point of view of fuel consumption and safety," said Sussman. People talking on cell phones and elderly drivers with slower reaction times would benefit from software that would automatically slow or stop a vehicle.

In the long run, equipping vehicles with Sentience-like systems is a step toward fully-autonomous vehicles, say both Overton and Sussman, although such systems are still at least a decade away.

"Ultimately you could say that this will end with driver-less cars," said Overton. The soonest that the Sentience system could be found on vehicles is 2012.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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