Google this week unveiled a prototype that it will test on California roads to learn more about how to make safe and efficient autonomous cars a mainstream reality.
For about four years, Google has been developing self-driving technology that could make the roads safer, and its newly revealed prototype is the latest step in the project.
The tiny vehicle is reminiscent of a Smart car, except for the sensors on top. They’re designed to eliminate blind spots and provide a view of more than the length of two football fields in all directions.
Inside, there are two seats with seatbelts, a space for passenger belongings, and a screen displaying the car’s route. Missing are a steering wheel and gas and brake pedals. There’s a red button a passenger can press to make an emergency stop.
As of now, the vehicle’s top speed is 25 mph. The company plans to build about 100 of the prototypes and start testing them later this summer. After running a small pilot program on California roads, Google expects to be able to offer its self-driving vehicle services more widely.
Good Head Start
Google’s self-driving research and its prototype are a huge step forward for the industry, said Panagiotis Tsiotras, director of the Dynamics and Control Systems Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology. One of its biggest strengths is that a Google vehicle won’t be held to the same constraints that a vehicle made by Ford, for instance, would be.
“The introduction of the prototype definitely puts Google ahead of the competition,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Google has done a supreme job on integrating many technologies that are required to make a self-driving car a reality. Not being an automotive company, Google has the freedom to pursue untraditional solutions and create new opportunities that are brought about by the absence of a driver — some of which more traditional car manufacturers would be most likely more reluctant to adopt.”
Google’s has a good understanding of the importance of self-driving technology, said Alain Kornhauser, professor of operations research and financial engineering, and director of the Transportation Program at Princeton University.
The company isn’t trying to convince the masses that they need to run out and buy an autonomous car. Instead, it emphasizes the superior safety features of self-driving technology, all of which appeals to people who want to drive but no longer can, he pointed out.
“Since the speed is limited to 25 mph and the vehicles are small, the application is probably limited to some retirement community in California,” he told TechNewsWorld. “However, such a demonstration will go a long way towards validating the safety and reliability of the concept and should get many influential people believing that this is all a real possibility rather than a pipe dream.”
Testing and Learning
As impressive as Google’s efforts so far have been, the competition won’t be far behind, noted Kornhauser.
“This will give everyone a kick in the butt. This is all game-changing in a very big market, so there will be a lot of players,” he predicted.
If Google’s research continues to go well — meaning it can improve upon urban driving, human-machine interactions and vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology — the company has a chance to secure a leading spot in the space, said GIT’s Tsiotras.
“As more individuals start to use these self-driving vehicles, the more we will learn about the best way to interact with them,” he observed. “All these are very good reasons for Google to release these prototypes, and the announcement has come at the right time.”