Self-driving car by Google

Google’s
self-driving vehicles will have recognizable faces designed to win human hearts
and minds. Google hopes to begin testing its custom-made robot cars on the
roads of Northern California starting in 2015. Google has unveiled the first
fully working road-legal prototype of its self-driving car. The original plan
was to create a car that was completely driverless, but California introduced
some new rules this year that stipulated that test cars must also have manual
controls (steering, pedals) so that a human driver can take over if needed. If
all goes to plan, Google hopes to partner with a real car maker to bring a
self-driving vehicle to market in the next five years. Whether the
commercialized driverless car will look like the overly cutesy Google prototype
remains to be seen.

For
the last few years, Google’s self-driving efforts have been focused on
retrofitting existing cars (primarily the Toyota Prius and Lexus 450h) with the
necessary hardware and software to autonomously drive a few towns and highways
in California and Nevada. Now, after hundreds of thousands of accident-free
miles, Google is confident enough in its self-driving tech that it’s taking the
next steps towards commercialization. In May it unveiled a semi-functioning
prototype (and a very cute promotional video, which is embedded below), and
today it is unveiling a completed, fully functioning prototype that is
road-legal.
Image
credit: Google (Google’s latest self-driving car prototype from December 2014)

The
biggest changes, though, aren’t visible from the outside: To comply with new legislation in California, this new prototype has a full set of manual controls
— a steering wheel, pedals, etc. Basically, to prevent the roads being flooded
with (potentially) dangerous self-driving cars, test vehicles must allow for
“immediate physical control” — i.e. there has to be a driver in there that can
slam on the brakes if the car’s software misbehaves. Google had previously
hoped that its prototype self-driving car would have just a single button — a
big stop/go button in between the two passenger seats — but for now, its
self-driving cars will need to have the usual manual controls as well.

Google
says it’s going to spend the next few weeks and months zipping around its test
track, and then if all goes to plan we should see the cute little car on the
streets of California “in the new year.” Eventually, Google hopes to produce
around 200 of the prototype cars — which might seem like a lot, but for
something as risky and bleeding-edge as autonomous driving, trust me when I say
that there’s no such thing as too much testing. Long-term, Google is hoping to
find industrial partners (i.e. car manufacturers) that can bring its
self-driving tech to the mass market within five years.

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