Why Google’s New Driverless Car Could Catch On in Your City

We’re getting a little bit closer to a future where regular people can ride in self-driving cars, drinking coffee and making calls on their commutes without endangering themselves or the drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists around them. In a recent post on Google’s official blog, Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, reported that some of the project’s self-driving vehicles will leave the test track and hit the roads of Mountain View this summer. Google’s safety drivers will be testing fully self-driving prototype cars. Urmson wrote:

We’ve been running the vehicles through rigorous testing at our test facilities, and ensuring our software and sensors work as they’re supposed to on this new vehicle. The new prototypes will drive with the same software that our existing fleet of self-driving Lexus RX450h SUVs uses. That fleet has logged nearly a million autonomous miles on the roads since we started the project, and recently has been self-driving about 10,000 miles a week. So the new prototypes already have lots of experience to draw on—in fact, it’s the equivalent of about 75 years of typical American adult driving experience.

Mark Harris reports for MIT Technology Review that the announcement that Google will road-test its unconventional two-seater car, known within Google as “Prototype,” likely comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with conventional cars. “The vehicles look cute but hardly impact-resistant,” Harris writes, “and they have a top speed of only 25 miles per hour.” But some experts think that the tactic is a practical strategy to get autonomous cars into everyday use.

The speed of the Prototype is capped at 25 miles per hour, and safety drivers will use a removable steering wheel, accelerator pedal, and brake pedal to take over driving if needed. Urmson notes that Google is “looking forward to learning how the community perceives and interacts with the vehicles, and to uncovering challenges that are unique to a fully self-driving vehicle — e.g., where it should stop if it can’t stop at its exact destination due to construction or congestion. In the coming years, we’d like to run small pilot programs with our prototypes to learn what people would like to do with vehicles like this.”

Unlike Google’s fleet of self-driving Lexuses, Prototype is designed to be a fully autonomous car. It’s a Level 4 vehicle, an NHTSA classification that applies to cars that simply require passengers to enter their destination and nothing more. Writing for The New York Times, Conor Dougherty and Aaron M. Kessler note that while Prototype’s steering wheel is a legal requirement, the company wants to take it out of the car altogether.

Speaking at SXSW earlier this year, Google X’s Astro Teller said that in 2012, the research division began allowing Google employees to take the Lexus version home and drive on the freeway, provided that they continued to pay attention to the road in case of an emergency. But the employees got used to the self-driving cars and stopped paying attention, demonstrating that “the assumption that humans can be a reliable backup for the system was a total fallacy,” according to Teller.

Writing for Technology Review, Harris notes that Google still has a significant amount of work to do before the software powering its driverless cars can safely handle all of the situations that a human driver can. But it will be easier for Google to build and test small vehicles intended for limited markets. Gary Silberg, an auto industry analyst at the consulting firm KPMG, tells Technology Review that he thinks there will be an “enormous market for small autonomous vehicles” like the ones Google is testing. The vehicles could find homes in city centers as well as at airports, amusement parks, or on large campuses.

Prototype’s low speed qualifies it for the less-stringent vehicle safety standards that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has laid out for electric golf carts. While the car has to have lights, mirrors, and seatbelts, it’s exempt from many of the crashworthiness standards and the airbag requirements of standard gas and electric vehicles. In Mountain View, Google’s car will be restricted to roads with a speed limit of 35 miles per hour or less.

Bryant Walker Smith, an expert on autonomous vehicles at the University of South Carolina, tells Harris that the low top speed still affords Prototype the versatility of an urban taxi. “Almost the entire island of Manhattan between the expressways could be accommodated by a vehicle operating at 25 miles per hour. Right there, you have several million people who could be serviced by a car like this.” A slow-moving, lightweight car like Prototype is less likely to be involved in a severe accident than in a minor fender-bender, and has less potential to kill or injure pedestrians or cyclists.

But as Harris notes, tests with Prototype won’t give Google the experience with safety systems and crash tests it will need when it designs a more conventional autonomous car that’s able to travel at higher speeds. And the Boston Consulting Group estimates that bringing fully autonomous cars to market will cost car makers upward of $1 billion each over the next decade as they design prototypes, develop sensors and processing technology, create integration software, and perform testing.

Google needs to make its software more capable of handling a variety of road situations, as it still can’t handle very rainy conditions or operate in areas that aren’t mapped to centimeter-level accuracy. But tests with the Prototype will likely help Google learn how other drivers on the road interact with autonomous vehicles, since no one yet knows how people will react to a car with an empty driver’s seat. Many consumers are unnerved by the idea of driverless cars, and as the technology arrives more quickly than many expected, acceptance is likely to prove a significant hurdle — one that might be helped if early driverless cars, like Prototype, aren’t capable of traveling at potentially dangerous high speeds.

The distinctive Prototype car looks a lot more like a golf cart than conventional car. And, like a golf cart, its utility and practicality in different environments is the subject of much debate. Writing recently for Gizmodo, Alissa Walker wrote that the electric cars of the future will be more like today’s electric golf carts than the pricy sports cars produced by Tesla. She argues that “from emissions to safety to cost, low-speed electric vehicles (a fancy way of saying golf carts) make a whole lot more sense in almost every way.”

While you can’t drive a low-speed vehicle everywhere, some argue that they’re well-suited to everyday activities in urban areas — exactly the same environment where it seems most likely that self-driving cars will catch on — once Google and others figure out how to build software that’s up to the challenge of safely navigating both city streets and highways.

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