It’s no secret that automakers the world over are working on autonomous vehicles. Technologies that enable vehicles to detect objects in blind spots or in the dark, steer away from obstacles and brake without human intervention are already on a number of new vehicles available today.
But now Google’s gone one step further, unveiling the first prototype of a vehicle that has the potential to drastically change the way we travel: the first fully autonomous ‘Self-Driving’ car.
Devoid of traditional components typically found in a moving vehicle — such as the steering wheel and pedals — the Self Driving prototype is a diminutive two-seater that has the ability to drive users to their destination at the push of a button without any further human input.
Google’s been working on an autonomous vehicle concept since 2009 using vehicles such as the Toyota Prius and Lexus RX crossover. In the last five years, the company has logged over 700,000 miles driver free. But while Toyota has been fastidiously trying to shake its image as a maker of bland vehicles that serve as an appliance, Google clearly hasn’t focused on brand, image or emotional attributes in the design of its futuristic mobility concept. Instead they’ve focused solely on the underlying tech.
“We’ve been working toward the goal of vehicles that can shoulder the entire burden of driving,” wrote Chris Urmson, Director of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, in a blog post. “Just imagine: You can take a trip downtown at lunchtime without a 20-minute buffer to find parking. Seniors can keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys. And drunk and distracted driving? History.”
The advantages of fully autonomous vehicles are clear. They have the potential to not only enable greater freedom for users on their commute, but also save time, fuel, and lives by reducing driver error, which is responsible for an astounding 99 percent of vehicle crashes.
But the autonomous car has far greater benefits. It will also provide older or disabled users who are unable to drive themselves with a new form of mobility, one that will not only take them to the destination of choice but also enable them to get there independently. That’s a big bonus for someone who’s visually impaired or confined to a wheelchair. It empowers them. And there’s no greater feeling than that.
“It was inspiring to start with a blank sheet of paper and ask, ‘What should be different about this kind of vehicle?’”, Urmson writes. As such, the company began by focusing on the most important aspect: safety. The cars have sensors that can detect objects from roughly 220 meters away in all directions and will be limited to 25mph.
Google is poised to build 100 prototype vehicles for testing, outfitting the first batch — scheduled for this summer — with some manual controls. The company aims to run a small pilot program in California in the next few years.
The vehicles will be very basic, says Urmson. “We want to learn from them and adapt them as quickly as possible.” The interior of the cars will therefore feature only seats, seatbelts, a space for passengers’ belongings, buttons to start and stop, a screen that shows the route and a safety roll cage. “We’ve designed for learning, not luxury, so we’re light on creature comforts,” Urmson concedes.
I’ve always contended that a car doesn’t need a whole lot to make the driver (or passenger in this case) feel special. One need only watch the video above to see the look of elation appear on the faces of these people, young and old, to witness that maxim in action.
The only thing left for Google to do is employ some actual car designers to change the ‘cute’ looking pebble into something that will actually resound with the buying public on an emotional level. After all, they’re still going to be seen in it.