On Wednesday, Google unveiled its first self-driving car prototype that will be built from the ground up specifically for driving sans human input. It looks like a mashup between a Smart ForTwo and a Volkswagen Bug, and it uses an electric drivetrain — but the most noticeable feature is the lack of one: a steering wheel. Or pedals.
“Just imagine: You can take a trip downtown at lunchtime without a 20-minute buffer to find parking,” Google says. “Seniors can keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys. And drunk and distracted driving? History.”
There are some pretty appealing aspects to autonomous driving, that’s for sure. Widespread adoption might be many years off, but this is what Google has proven itself as doing best: thinking well ahead of the curve. “The vehicles will be very basic — we want to learn from them and adapt them as quickly as possible — but they will take you where you want to go at the push of a button,” Google said. “And that’s an important step toward improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.”
The company added that it will be building about 100 of the prototypes (seen on the left, with an artist’s rendering on the right), and later this summer, “our safety drivers will start testing early versions of these vehicles that have manual controls.” In a few years, Google is hoping to run a pilot program in its home state of California.
Overall, the public seems fairly split on the subject of self-driving cars. Many are reluctant to relinquish control of the vehicle to a piece of software, and for perfectly understandable reasons. The premise of self-driving cars, though, is that statistically, software will make fewer errors than humans on a large scale. This obviously remains to be seen, but early testing has shown some promise.
The vehicle is currently limited to 25 miles per hour and “on the inside, we’ve designed for learning, not luxury, so we’re light on creature comforts, but we’ll have two seats (with seatbelts), a space for passengers’ belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen that shows the route — and that’s about it,” Google said. This car is truly about the technology, not about the creature comforts — those will come later. It uses sensors that negate blind spots and can detect objects at distance of more than two football fields in every direction.
Google is far from the only company working toward this goal. Toyota and Nissan both have active autonomous driving programs, as do BMW and Ford. This is likely good for Google, as a serious movement in the self-driving car sector is going to take the weight of the industry behind it to push it forward.