It looks more like a daring concept car, one you would be likely to see at the Tokyo Motor Show, rather than a vehicle built for America’s open roads – but Google Inc. (GOOG) is betting that its smart automobile will change the way people travel. The Silicon Valley tech giant has unveiled a prototype version of its much-hyped driverless cars, showing off its compact design and autonomous abilities in a promotional video released yesterday.
The driverless prototype is equipped with hundreds of radar sensors that can visualize driving environments and can ‘see’ up to 600 feet in all directions. The all-electric vehicle seats just two passengers, and its top speed has been limited to 25 miles an hour. Users will also be surprised by the lack of a steering wheel, and the absence of gas and brake pedals.
The announcement marks the first time a company has introduced a car that completely eliminates the need for a driver. Users can summon the vehicle though an application, and then get driven without ever having to operate the vehicle themselves. Directions are given using an onboard navigation system, but other than that there aren’t many controls other than a start button and a red emergency brake button. Previously, Google’s initiatives in the driverless car space had the option of a driver being able to take over in the case of an emergency or system failure.
The latest move by Google to build its own vehicle from scratch marks a shift from the past, when the company used modified Prius and Lexus RX models from Toyota Motor Corp. (TM) to test its driverless technology. But Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin has indicated clearly that the company will likely partner up with other automakers in the future to make the technology ubiquitous.
Google is also looking to enter strategic partnerships with startups like Uber, a taxi-hiring service that it has already invested $250 million in through its investment arm, Google Ventures. The driverless car project is based at Google X, a facility that houses “moonshot” ideas being developed into viable technologies for the future.
Google plans to build around 100 such prototypes this year in order to conduct testing, but it is not clear whether the tech giant plans to manufacturer self-driving cars on a large scale. Experts say the most likely scenario will be Google teaming up with an established automaker to build and distribute the vehicles, supplying only the technology behind the driverless system.
But in the process of developing the technology, Google wants to ensure a focus on safety until a universal protocol for self-driving cars is introduced. The latest prototype includes safety features such as additional foam around the bumpers and a plastic windshield. Google has said that its engineers will learn from the testing phase and further improve the technology, fixing any faults that they find. The company’s previous driverless cars have been involved in minor crashes, but all the incidents have been attributed to human errors rather than faults in the vehicles. Google hopes that communicative, self- driving cars will one day help eliminate the 1.3 million annual deaths that occur from road accidents around the world.
Over the next couple of years, Google intends to launch pilot programs in California – starting with one at its own headquarters in Mountain View – to transport employees between buildings. States such as California, Florida, and Nevada have opened up to the idea of allowing autonomous vehicles. They have recently passed legislation allowing driverless cars to use public roads for testing purposes.
But as automakers such as Nissan (NSANY), Mercedes Benz – owned by Daimler (DDAIY) –, and Volvo (VLKAY) gear up to introduce self-driving vehicles for the mass market by the end of the decade, a major obstacle in the path is that current laws seem outdated. Vehicle technology has outgrown archaic road laws, and a sweeping reform is needed to give way to a new breed of vehicles.
For now, Google is optimistic that California and other states will allow extensive testing of its driverless vehicles on public roads. Current laws stipulate that a driver must be present at all times regardless of how smart the car may be.
What is your take on Google’s driverless cars? Let us know in the comments section below, and our analyst will reply to you shortly.