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posted: 5/31/2014 6:51 AM

Google takes step forward on self-driving vehicles

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  • This Google-designed car is unlike one any automaker would have created. The most obvious difference? There's no steering column. The car also doesn't have any brakes or accelerator. It's operated completely by software.

      This Google-designed car is unlike one any automaker would have created. The most obvious difference? There's no steering column. The car also doesn't have any brakes or accelerator. It's operated completely by software.
    associated press

 
By Hayley Tsukayama, The Washington Post

For years, Google has touted its efforts to develop an autonomous car, pushing for legislation to allow its vehicles on public roads.

Now, the tech giant is taking a bigger step into the driverless world, unveiling the prototype of an autonomous car that it designed itself.

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The Google-designed car is unlike one any automaker would have created. The most obvious difference? There's no steering column. The car also doesn't have any brakes or accelerator. It's operated completely by software.

By design, it's also no luxury car. The vehicle lacks "creature comforts," according to a Google blog post, and is equipped with just two seats, a space for passengers' belongings, start and stop buttons and a screen to show passengers the route.

"The main reason we wanted to develop this prototype vehicle is that we can do a better job than we can do with an existing vehicle," Google co-founder Sergey Brin said in a statement.

Here's a closer look at Google's latest model:

How does it drive?

The project appears to build on the self-driving-car technology that we've already seen come out of Google and high-end car companies, using a variety of sensors placed all over the vehicle to feed information to the part of the car responsible for steering. According to Google, the sensors on its cars can see a distance of "more than two football fields." Google also capped the car's speed at 25 mph, as a check against any nightmarish visions you might have about robot cars careening out of control.

So, how's the ride?

Google says it's smooth and calm, which it backs up with rider comments from its test drive videos.

In fact, Google claims that its cars might be better drivers than many of the humans behind the wheel. "Our vehicles move smoothly on the road," Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving-car program, said in a company video. "If anything, they are more courteous and more defensive drivers than normal drivers."

Can I get one?

Nope, sorry. It's still early days for the prototype, but the company aims to have 100 of the cars on public roads by this time next year. (Those prototypes would have some manual controls.) The pilot program in California could begin in the next couple of years "if all goes well," according to an official company blog post.

What's the big picture here for Google?

Google says it wants to eliminate accidents by using cars that rely on software to steer. An autonomous car would also improve the quality of life for its owners, the company says.

For example, a Google promotional video showed a blind man, as well as several seniors who may no longer feel comfortable driving, getting behind the windshield of the new car. There was also a busy mother who said that a driverless car would let her reclaim the minutes she spends in transit to share more time with her son.

Google is far from a time when it might be able to produce these driverless cars on a large scale, but Urmson did sketch out one possible application in a behind-the-scenes video: a sort of driverless-car ride-sharing program.

"Imagine a world where you get in your car, it takes you where you want to go, and then you get out. And you don't have to search for parking. You just leave it, and it goes off and lets someone else get to where they're going," Urmson said.

That gives us a glimpse of the scope that Google's self-driving-car team is thinking about.

How close are we to self-driving cars of any kind, really?

Plenty of other companies are also looking into this technology. In fact, driverless cars were the talk of this year's Consumer Electronics Show for the second year in a row as automakers such as Audi and BMW showed off their dreams for a driverless fleet.

Google has been at the forefront of lobbying for the legalization of self-driving cars for over a year now. In 2012, Nevada passed legislation to approve self-driving car licenses. Colorado considered, then shelved, a bill to do the same last year.

And California recently passed its first standards for self-driving cars on its roads. Those rules take effect on Sept. 16, and require that anyone operating a driverless car undergo extra training to operate the vehicles on public roads.

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