Google just unveiled its latest autonomous car, and it's a bulbous two-seater, with no steering wheel, gas or brake. This is the future, pod people.
Unlike the Prius and Lexus hybrids in Google's fleet, this was designed from the ground-up as a complete reimagining of what transportation could be. It's designed to simply get you get from A to B – plug in your destination and you'll never have to interact with the controls.
We're now exploring what fully self-driving vehicles would look like by building some prototypes; they'll be designed to operate safely and autonomously without requiring human intervention. 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. The vehicles will be very basic—we want to learn from them and adapt them as quickly as possible—but they will take you where you want to go at the push of a button. And that's an important step toward improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.
By starting with a blank sheet of paper, Google X – the company's skunkworks division – was able to nix every extraneous bit of modern cars, which means in addition to no controls, it doesn't have a stereo, a glovebox, or mirrors.
What it does have is an electric drivetrain that's capped at a top speed of 25 MPH, buttons for start and stop, and a screen that shows the route.
This being Google, there isn't much to the design. It's basic, raw, and yes, looks like a techno Koala. But by starting from scratch, engineers have been able to do things like upgrade the sensors from the 12-degree field-of-view of its earlier prototypes to a full 360-degree view to get more than 200 yards of visibility and track hundreds of objects.
Like Google's previous efforts, the systems mimic defensive driving behavior, so the car will stay out of blind spots, move away from big rigs, pause when the light goes green, and even give lane-splitting fools like me room.
Google put a premium on safety, beginning with that speed governor, since minimal speeds means minimal damage. The windshield is flexible and the front end is made of foam, so it will give if it hits a pedestrian or bicyclist, and while there are no ancillary controls on this first prototype, there are mechanical redundancies built in, with two different systems controlling the steering and brakes.
"We imagine at some point there will be an accident with one of these vehicles, so we've designed the front end to be soft," Ron Medford, director of safety for the project and former U.S. Department of Transportation administrator in charge of vehicle safety research and regulations told Recode.
It's also designed to entice partners in the program, since Google has no intention of building and selling its own autonomous car. At least, for now.
Google's plan is to build about 100 of these prototypes, with "safety drivers" beginning to test the cars this summer. Those cars will have traditional controls as a backup, and Google plans to run the pilot project for a couple of years to learn from the program. Will it go on sale? No. Could it be integrated with Uber, which Google owns a stake in? Absolutely.