Google unveils its first built-from-scratch self-driving car
Google has unveiled the first fully working road-legal prototype of its self-driving car. The original plan was to create a car that was completely driverless, but California introduced some new rules this year that stipulated that test cars must also have manual controls (steering, pedals) so that a human driver can take over if needed. If all goes to plan, Google hopes to partner with a real car maker to bring a self-driving vehicle to market in the next five years. Whether the commercialized driverless car will look like the overly cutesy Google prototype remains to be seen.
For the last few years, Google’s self-driving efforts have been focused on retrofitting existing cars (primarily the Toyota Prius and Lexus 450h) with the necessary hardware and software to autonomously drive a few towns and highways in California and Nevada. Now, after hundreds of thousands of accident-free miles, Google is confident enough in its self-driving tech that it’s taking the next steps towards commercialization. In May it unveiled a semi-functioning prototype (and a very cute promotional video, which is embedded below), and today it is unveiling a completed, fully functioning prototype that is road-legal.
Google’s original, semi-functioning self-driving car prototype from May 2014
Google’s latest self-driving car prototype from December 2014
At first glance, this new prototype looks almost identical to the model shown off in May, but if you look closely there are quite a few significant changes. Perhaps most notably, the new prototype actually has working headlights (previously they were drawn on), and the hump on the roof of the car (which houses the LIDAR hardware) is a lot more svelte. Some people will be upset to see that the smile has been removed, too, replaced by a couple of indicators. (The front of the prototype still looks a bit like a face, but it looks a bit more… strained or serious, perhaps.)
The biggest changes, though, aren’t visible from the outside: To comply with new legislation in California, this new prototype has a full set of manual controls — a steering wheel, pedals, etc. Basically, to prevent the roads being flooded with (potentially) dangerous self-driving cars, test vehicles must allow for “immediate physical control” — i.e. there has to be a driver in there that can slam on the brakes if the car’s software misbehaves. Google had previously hoped that its prototype self-driving car would have just a single button — a big stop/go button in between the two passenger seats — but for now, its self-driving cars will need to have the usual manual controls as well.
Google says it’s going to spend the next few weeks and months zipping around its test track, and then if all goes to plan we should see the cute little car on the streets of California “in the new year.” Eventually, Google hopes to produce around 200 of the prototype cars — which might seem like a lot, but for something as risky and bleeding-edge as autonomous driving, trust me when I say that there’s no such thing as too much testing.
Long-term, Google is hoping to find industrial partners (i.e. car manufacturers) that can bring its self-driving tech to the mass market within five years. It’s funny — a few years ago, it seemed like Google was light years ahead of the competition, but now, with companies like Tesla, Mercedes, and Audi all getting very close to fully autonomous driving, it feels like Google might be slipping to the back of the pack.
Now read: Google has built a Matrix-like simulation of California to test its self-driving cars
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