Would you climb into a driverless car? Even one pioneered by the tech wizards at one of the world’s most respected innovation engines? Well, get ready to make that choice because Google is prepping 100 prototypes of autonomous vehicles, unveiled May 28. Just tell it where to go, and the software brain does the rest.
A recent episode of HBO comedy “Silicon Valley” showed a main character being offered a ride home in a self-driving car. At first he’s amazed and delighted as a combo of sensors and algorithms seemed capable of handling California’s infamously snarly traffic. But somehow a glitch causes the car to change destinations, and with no way of overriding the system, Jared finds himself locked in a container in a ship’s hull, bound for an island that straddles the International Date Line.
These kinds of fears are not helped by the fact that Google is building prototypes that don't have steering wheels, accelerator pedals or brake pedals in an effort to bring the self-driving small electric cars to market.
But Google is highlighting the positives: “We’re now exploring what fully self-driving vehicles would look like by building some prototypes; they’ll be designed to operate safely and autonomously without requiring human intervention,” Chris Urmson, director of the self-driving car project at Google, explained in a blog. “Our software and sensors do all the work. The vehicles will be very basic—we want to learn from them and adapt them as quickly as possible—but they will take you where you want to go at the push of a button. And that's an important step toward improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.”
He talked about vehicles that can shoulder the “entire burden” of driving: “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.”
Google’s been after this since 2009, and has already helped incorporate some of the technology (such as laser sensors and radar) into Lexus SUVs and the Prius from Toyota. Now it has (as yet unnamed) automotive suppliers and manufacturers on board to take the project to the next level. Google said that it plans to license the technology to vehicle manufacturers once it has been fully baked.
“We’re planning to build about a hundred prototype vehicles, and later this summer, our safety drivers will start testing early versions of these vehicles that have manual controls,” Urmson said. “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.”
‘Safely’ is the operative word. Basic safe navigation, even in the face of road construction and the like, is one challenge. Google co-founder Sergey Brin said at a conference this week that there needs to be high-definition scans of the roads gathered in advance, because the cars can’t take in the necessary data to do that in real time—yet. Such high-detail maps are so far available of about 2,000 miles of California's roads.
In the event that a pedestrian gets in the way, the car is outfitted with impact-absorbing foam at the front and a plastic windscreen, so "it should be far safer than any other car for pedestrians,” Brin said. And, he said that so far the Google cars have covered 700,000 miles in tests without an accident.
There’s also the cyber-attack aspect—at the end of the day, these are connected vehicles, and vulnerable to hackers looking to gain control of the car via its IP-connected electronics. That paves the way for everything from hackers on a lark causing congestion to Silicon Valley-style abductions, to distraction-creation to take away from another crime.
Urmson addressed some of the physical concerns, though none of the players have yet addressed cybersecurity. “We started with the most important thing: safety. They have sensors that remove blind spots, and they can detect objects out to a distance of more than two football fields in all directions, which is especially helpful on busy streets with lots of intersections. And we’ve capped the speed of these first vehicles at 25 mph. On the inside, we’ve designed for learning, not luxury, so we’re light on creature comforts, but we’ll have two seats (with seatbelts), a space for passengers’ belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen that shows the route—and that’s about it.”
Of course, the technology isn’t for everybody. Overall, Brin said that the project was "about changing the world for people who are not well-served by transportation today,” such as the blind, the disabled and the elderly. It’s also perfect for a service industry play for the mobility-challenged, those in urban environments where owning a car and driving may not be an option themselves, taxi service replacement and so on.
He described the experience thusly: "You're just sitting there, no steering wheel, no pedals. For me it was very relaxing. In about 10 seconds after getting in, I forgot I was there. It reminded me of catching a chairlift by yourself, a bit of solitude I found really enjoyable."
As time goes on, more innovation will be coming down the pike, so the vetting process here will make for important precedent, particularly as the stakes get higher. “Over the past decade, Google has expanded out from their search business into a variety of other verticals including email, cloud data-storage, maps, Web analytics, wearable technology, driverless cars, and a zillion other secret projects they are working on in unmarked warehouses out in Silicon Valley,” said Leigh Drogen from investment firm Estimize, in a Seeking Alpha note. “In their most recent expansion, Google announced it will acquire solar-powered drone manufacturer, Titan Aerospace.”
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