Google Launch Prototype Self-Driving Car
Just last month we reported on Google’s latest software developments which are allowing self-driving vehicles to navigate busy city streets, and this has been followed by the news that the technology giant has opted to develop its own autonomous vehicles.
The image below shows how the software views obstacles on the street and controls the navigation of the vehicle in a safe manner. It is able to detect and recognise hundreds of different objects simultaneously and negotiate a path through urban areas containing pedestrians, road works, cyclists, railway crossings, and a variety of other obstructions.
Up until this point the technology has been integrated into existing vehicles, but now Google has taken the unprecedented step of developing its own prototype of the self-driving car of the future.
The prototype vehicles, pictured below, have been built from the ground up by Google and are essentially very basic, as they have been made so that the company’s engineers can learn from them and begin to adapt them. The initial design has been based around the most important aspect of autonomous driving – safety.
The cars use sensors which remove blind spots and can detect objects to a distance of two football fields away in every direction. This will be essential if the vehicles are to make it onto public roads, particularly in heavily congested urban areas.
Although these first vehicles, by Google’s admission, are designed to be very basic, they are a step on the road to providing mobility for many people who might otherwise not have it, and in this sense the simpler the car the better. They will be controlled by a smartphone app which will be able to summon the car and instruct it to drive to a selected destination.
They have initially been capped at a speed limit of 25mph for testing purposes, and will start with the simple touch of a button. There is no steering wheel, no accelerator pedal and no brake pedal, so these cars are not designed for humans to take control at any point, they are truly autonomous. As the prototypes have been designed for learning, the interior is relatively sparse and without the typical creature comforts. There are two seats with seatbelts, a space for passenger’s belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen that displays the route.
Google plans to build around 100 of the prototypes, and later in the summer their safety drivers will begin to test early versions of the vehicles which do incorporate manual controls. Further to those tests Google say they are hoping to run a small pilot program in California in the next couple of years. They also state that if the technology develops as expected, they will work with partners to bring it safely to fruition.
That last statement suggests that Google is likely to develop driverless vehicles alongside an established manufacturer, but the company has remained tight-lipped over whether it plans to enter the car manufacturing market itself. What we do know about the prototype vehicles is that they are being built by an unnamed manufacturer in the Detroit area, and will run on an electric motor with a range of around 100 miles. The front of the cars will be made of a foam material in case the computer fails and causes a collision with a pedestrian, and they will also incorporate a rear view mirror – not because the passengers will need to see behind them, but because it is a requirement under California’s vehicle code.
Recent automated driving regulations in the state of California, issued on May 20th, require that test vehicles must have manual controls so a human can take control if necessary. But it is widely expected that follow-up regulations in the near future will allow manufacturers to apply for permits to test fully-autonomous vehicles on public highways, and this is what Google will aim for with the next generation of the prototypes.
Last year a study on transforming personal mobility was undertaken at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The research found that Manhattan’s 13,000 taxis made 470,000 trips per day, carrying an average of 1.4 people per trip. The average speed was 10-11mph, and the average waiting time was 4-5 minutes. The report stated that in comparison, a fleet of 9,000 shared autonomous vehicles hailed by smartphone could match that capacity with a wait time of less than 1 minute. The current cost of a taxi service is about $4 per mile, but in contrast the report estimated that an autonomous fleet would cost as little as 50 cents per mile.
Although developing a fleet of such proportions would be a huge challenge, and not one we are likely to see for many years to come, it certainly provides food for thought. This latest step by Google should quickly lead to fully-autonomous vehicles, without manual controls, being tested on public roads. However unlikely, it remains to be seen whether Google will want to become a car manufacturer in their own right, but this is certainly another development which puts the company at the very forefront of autonomous driving technology.
*Editor's Note: Have a look at this inspiring short video from Google