29 May 2014

Google’s new self-driving electric car, no steering wheel and incredibly cute

Google self-driving car prototype, real thing
You are looking at Google’s very own, built-from-scratch-in-Detroit self-driving car. The battery-powered electric vehicle has as a stop-go button, but no steering wheel or pedals. The plan is to build around 200 of the mostly-plastic cars over the next year, with road testing probably restricted to California for the next year or two. Compared to the fairly aggressive stance of other notable EVs, like the Tesla Model S or Toyota Prius, Google’s new self-driving car is incredibly cutesy, closely resembling a Little Tikes plastic car there’s even the same damn smiley face on the front. The cutesy appearance is undoubtedly a clever move to reduce apprehension towards the safety or long-term effects of autonomous vehicles “Aw, how can something so cute be dangerous?”

For the last three years, Google has been retrofitting the Toyota Prius, Audi TT, and Lexus RS450h with the necessary software and hardware to perform autonomous driving. Now, Google has taken everything it has learnt about driverless cars, and built its own prototype from the ground up. Early versions of the prototype (which doesn’t appear to have a name) will still have manual controls for safety, but the eventual plan is to produce a fleet of some 200 completely driverless cars that can nip around California.

Disappointingly, Google’s new car still has a ton of expensive hardware radar, lidar, 360-degree cameras sitting on a tripod on the roof. This is to ensure good sightlines around the vehicle, but it’s a shame that Google hasn’t yet worked out how to build the hardware into the car itself, like other car makers that are toying with self-driving-like functionality. (Or maybe it has, but doesn’t want to invest additional money and engineering time until it’s time to commercialize the car.) In the concept art below, you can see that the eventual goal might be to build the computer vision and ranging hardware into a slightly less ugly rooftop beacon.

Google self-driving car prototype, concept art
Google self-driving car prototype, concept art

These first prototypes are mostly of plastic construction, with battery/electric propulsion limited to a max speed of 25 mph (40 kph). Instead of an engine or “frunk,” there’s a foam bulkhead at the front of the car to protect the passengers. Internally, there’s just a couple of seats, and some great big windows so you can enjoy the views (which must surely be one of the best perks of riding in a self-driving car).

Google’s stated goal in the blog post introducing the new car is “improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.” Driverless cars could definitely revolutionize travel for people who can’t drive. Improving road safety is a little more nebulous, though. While it’s generally agreed that if all cars on the road were autonomous, there could be some massive gains in safety and efficiency (both in terms of fuel usage and squeezing more cars onto the roads). In the lead-up to that utopian scenario, though, there are all sorts of questions about how to effectively integrate a range of manual, semi- and fully self-driving vehicles on the same roadways.

Removing everything except for a stop-go button might sound like a good idea, but it’s naive. How do you move the car a few feet, so someone can get out, or for backing up to a trailer? Will Google’s software allow for temporary double parking, or off-road for a concert or party? Can you choose which parking spot the car will use, to leave the better/closer parking spots for your doddery grandfather? How will these cars handle the very “human” problems of giving way for other cars and pedestrians? Can you program the car to give way to a hot girl, but not an angry-looking trucker?

Plus, is it even sensible to promote a system that will eventually make it easier to cram more cars onto the road? Shouldn’t we be moving towards better, more efficient public transportation? At least until we move away from coal and gas towards cleaner power sources, like nuclear, solar, and fusion.

Google is now safety testing some early units, and will hopefully scale up production to around 200 cars that could be on the road “within the year.”

Courtesy Extremetech


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