google-cars20140610GOOGLE recently unveiled plans to build its own self-driving cars—minus steering wheels—that it hopes to begin testing in the coming months.

“They won’t have a steering wheel, accelerator pedal or brake pedal. . . because they don’t need them. Our software and sensors do all the work,” Google’s Chris Urmson said in a blog post.

Urmson, who directs the self-driving car project, said Google plans to build about 100 prototypes, “and later this summer, our safety drivers will start testing early versions of these vehicles that have manual controls.”

He added; “If all goes well, we’d like to run a small pilot program here in California in the next couple of years.”

For Google, the car marks a shift away from adapting vehicles made by others in its quest to pioneer individual transport that needs only a stop-and-go function.

‘What should be different?’
“It was inspiring to start with a blank sheet of paper and ask, ‘What should be different about this kind of vehicle?’” the post said.

The top speed of the battery-powered prototypes will be 40kph and are designed for utility, not luxury.

“We’ll have two seats, a space for passengers’ belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen that shows the route—and that’s about it,” Urmson said.

The blog post shows a photo of a prototype and an artist’s rendering—both rounded, bug-looking vehicles.

“We took a look from the ground up of what a self-driving car would look like,” Google co-founder Sergey Brin told the Re/code conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. “The reason I’m so excited about these prototypes and the self-driving car project in general is the ability to change the world and the community around you,” Brin added.

Brin said Google is likely “to partner with a lot of companies” on the project, but declined to elaborate.

Until now Google has been re-fitting Lexus and Toyota cars to work as self-driving ones.

Richard Wallace, who heads transportation systems analysis at the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research, said Google’s effort may accelerate the drive for autonomous vehicles.

“This certainly excites the imagination, and it makes it a lot more real to the public,” Wallace said. “It also prompts some others to step up and it shows a fair amount of commitment by Google to figure out the manufacturing game.”

Several carmakers have been working on autonomous or semi-autonomous features for cars, such as self-parking, but no fully autonomous car has come to market.

A January report by the research firm IHS said self-driving cars could start hitting highways by 2025 and number as many as 35 million globally by 2035.

Tech-sector vehicles
Wallace said the market is now shifting and that Google’s actions may bring other nontraditional firms into the auto sector.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple formed a partnership with a car company” for a similar project, Wallace said.

Roger Kay, analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, agreed that Google is shaking up the sector.

“It looks as if the technology is coming to fruition faster than the public is ready to accept it, which is a bit surprising,” Kay said, adding that the new technology needs a company outside the auto sector to make it happen quickly.

“My sense is that if Google wants to do it right, they have to do it themselves. The auto companies want tomorrow to look like yesterday. They want to incorporate new things but don’t want to change the essential equation,” Kay said.

He said that he believes consumers will eventually embrace the technology because “it’s liberating.”

“I can’t wait for this. I hate driving. But also, individual human beings make suboptimal decisions all the time. . . driving seems complicated but it can be broken down into very simple stimulus reactions, and that lends itself beautifully to computers,” he said.



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