Google’s self-driving car project has gotten plenty of press in the past few years, with lots of rumblings about the project moving fast enough to put driverless cars on the road by the end of the decade. Well, there might be something to those reports – Google has unveiled their first working prototype, and with the millions of dollars they’re pouring into the project, it looks like this bit of science fiction is about to become fact.
The prototype, as a good prototype should, makes a statement about what this thing wants to accomplish. The fact that the car has no pedals and no steering wheel speaks volumes. Google is aiming to restrict human control – the most dangerous part about cars – as much as possible. There are plenty of other improvements over human drivers here, too – sensors that eliminate blind spots and can detect objects ‘of more than two football fields in all directions,’ which is a lot better than what your eyesight can muster. Google still will need to perfect the software that will run things, but assuming they can get it right, the potential for road safety is much higher here than what we have now.
The prototype itself is a prototype – it’s built to be economical and for ease of testing. The prototype looks a bit like a Smart Car, and is a two-seater. It caps out at 25 mph, which is appropriate enough considering this is the first crack at getting this technology right. Google is planning on building roughly a hundred of these prototypes for testing, followed by a few versions with manual controls later this summer that will be put through safety tests. According to their blog, Google is looking at establishing pilot programs in California sometime in the next couple years.
Needless to say, this won’t be the design that goes commercial – over the next few years, Google will need to make the technology safe at highway speeds, and in highway traffic. And, as I’m sure Google has learned from the Glass experience, they’ll need to nail the image part of the equation, too. In fact, it’s entirely possible that you’ll never see a Google-branded driverless car – it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Google collaborate with established automobile companies, merging Google’s software expertise with car companies’ design expertise. Either way, driverless cars by the 2020s is looking even more likely today.