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Google Announces New Self-Driving Car Prototype

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An early version of Google's prototype vehicle and an artistic rendering of the vehicle

Photo courtesy of Google’s blog

In a Bloomberg Businessweek article titled “Look Ma, No Hands: Sergey Brin’s GoogleCar Has No Steering Wheel, No Brakes,” Brad Stone writes that the Google co-founder announced on Tuesday that the company has designed and manufactured a line of driverless cars. Speaking at the annual Code Conference, which costs $6,500 to attend and is held in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., Brin said Google will begin testing the vehicles later this year, Stone reports.

Writing for Re/code, a news site that organizes the Code Conference, Liz Gannes quotes Brin from the event: “The project is about changing the world for people who are not well-served by transportation today.” As Samuel Gibbs notes in an article for The Guardian, Google is the first company ever to build a car “with no steering wheel, accelerator, or brake pedal.” There is simply a large red emergency stop button and a start button, Gibbs writes.

In another Re/code article, Gannes writes that the front of the new Google car looks like a cartoon face, with two headlights as the eyes and a “cute little button nose sensor” in the center. Chris Urmson, director of Google’s five-year-old self-driving-car project, told Gannes they designed it that way to look friendly.

Gannes got to take a ride in the car, which reaches a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour. She writes:

Zipping around the parking lot, I can’t say I felt scared about being out of control. It was fun. But I also can’t say it was an easy mental leap to imagine that the future would hold streets full of these bubble cars — some with passengers, others completely empty. [Re/Code colleague] Kara [Swisher] and I agreed that this felt a lot like a theme park ride.

Google is building 100 to 200 prototypes of the electric-powered self-driving car, writes Jessica Guynn for USA TODAY. Samuel Gibbs writes for The Guardian that the cars, which seat two, will be manufactured “by a firm in the Detroit area, but Google declined to comment on which.” The new car resembles a mashup of a Smart car and a Nissan Micra, Gibbs writes.

The Google self-driving car grew out of the Darpa Grand Challenges for robotic vehicles in the early 2000s, Gibbs writes. Google began developing a self-driving car in 2008, first with a modified Toyota Prius, then with custom Lexus SUVs, adding a spinning laser scanner to the tops of the vehicles to augment the existing sensors, Gibbs writes. 

The car’s electric battery has a 100-mile range. The vehicle uses sensors, software, and very detailed maps to know where it is and what is on the roads, including pedestrians, cyclists, other vehicles, signs, traffic lights, road markings, and even construction zones, Gibbs writes. The new prototype is able to perceive up to 600 feet all around it, Gibbs writes. It has a foam bumper on the front “to be as kind to pedestrians as possible,” Gibbs writes, and a flexible windshield designed to absorb energy should it collide with a person. (However, as this blog has reported, in 700,000 miles of testing, Google’s self-driving cars have never had an accident that was their fault.)

The car’s designers have taken pains to create a “defensive, considerate” driving style to protect passengers and others on the roads, Gibbs writes. For example, the car waits a second after a light turns green to make sure no one is jumping a red light in the perpendicular lanes.

Gibbs reports that at some point, when Google believes the prototypes are safe, the company will have “real people” ride in them, and not just Google engineers. He writes:

These cars are still very much in the early prototype stage still, and Google is still trying to figure out how to make a product out of the technology, how much it is likely to cost and when it will be available.

Testing will take several years, he writes; estimates are that non-prototype cars might be built in about five years, but it could be a lot longer before they are on the market.

Here’s a video Google made about this new prototype:


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