Google has made a major breakthrough in its self-driving car project. The tech giant has now started building its own prototype vehicles from scratch, rather than retro-fitting existing commercial models such as the Toyota Prius. This has enabled some interesting design modifications such as, well, no steering wheel — for a start!
Google is quick to point out that the three prototypes currently in use are test models designed for observing, learning and eventual tweaking, not necessarily for style and creature comforts. As always, improved road safety is the driving factor behind the project, and the prototype designs are spartan so the project team can focus on specific details. According to Project Director Chris Urmson, “It was inspiring to start with a blank sheet of paper and ask, ‘What should be different about this kind of vehicle?’”
And different it is! While the protoypes’ exteriors have shades of existing compact cars, inside they have no accelerator or brake pedals, and no steering wheel. They simply don’t need them. There are buttons to start and stop the vehicle and a screen to show the route. Add an electric motor, two seats, seatbelts and some storage, and you’re done! However, building on the lessons of earlier stages of the project, the prototypes have onboard sensors, cameras and radars and can detect objects to a distance of two football fields away. Their speed has also been capped at 25 mph for now.
Urmson goes on to reveal that the team is planning to build about 100 prototypes of the self-driving cars to test out different features. And while the current models allow for no driver input, later this northern summer their test drivers will also begin trialling prototypes with some opt-in manual controls in case of emergencies. Urmson says, “If all goes well, we’d like to run a small pilot program here in California in the next couple of years. We’re going to learn a lot from this experience, and if the technology develops as we hope, we’ll work with partners to bring this technology into the world safely.” The team have also launched a new Google+ page for the project and they are keen to hear feedback about which features “passengers” want from their future, self-driving car.