Google Debuts Its First Autonomous Car: Is This The Future Of (Non) Driving?

May 28, 2014

When you think of Google and autonomous cars, you probably think of a Toyota Prius retrofitted with radar, cameras, and other high-tech toys. But as we reported last year, Google isn't content to be an aftermarket autonomous car-maker. Google may build its own self-driving vehicles from scratch.  

What might those vehicles look like? How will they perform? Thanks to a blog post from Chris Urmson, director of Google's Self-Driving Car Project, we now have some preliminary answers to those and other questions.

The prototype that Urmson unveiled is...unusual. It has none of the gadgets we normally think of when we think of cars -- no controls, just a bench seat, plenty of legroom, and one big "stop" button. Urmson explains:

"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."

To everyday gearheads, Google's car may not be much of a looker -- something like the offspring of a Fiat 500 and a Mitsubishi i-MiEV that inherited the least attractive traits from its parents. From the outside, it seems like a car that Hello Kitty would use to get around town. (In fact, thanks to the front, center sensor panel, it looks a little like Miss Kitty herself.)

But not to worry -- Urmson explains that this prototype isn't fully styled. It's a mock-up, a stand-in that can function on the streets to help Google perfect navigation and other features:

"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.... On the inside, we’ve designed for learning, not luxury, so we’re light on creature comforts, but we’ll have two seats (with seatbelts), a space for passengers’ belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen that shows the route—and that’s about it."

The prototypes are currently designed with a top speed of 25 mph, but at the Recode Code Conference, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said that final products will be able to travel 100 mph.

Urmson says that the company is building 100 prototypes equipped with manual controls (presumably to meet California's new regulations for autonomous vehicles), which will hit the streets later this summer. No word on when or if Google might offer these to consumers.


For better or worse, this prototype is Google through and through.

On the downside, it may be a little off-putting to people who are wary of autonomous cars. It's unattractive -- or at least, "different" -- and it seems more like an amusement park ride than a true car. (Brin himself described it like riding a chairlift on a ski trip.) As we've seen before, Google has put form aside for the moment, focusing instead on function. (Remember Wave?) That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it can ruin first impressions.

On the upside, Google's vision is extraordinary. Urmson and his colleagues aren't just interested in road trains for commuters, they're not designing some wimpy, first-generation version of the self-diving car. They've gone all in, they're hitting for the bleachers.

Urmson et al. want to change the way we think about and interact with vehicles. They want to improve mobility for seniors, the blind, and others who've lost or never had transportation independence. They want a world of smart cars and smart streets, where accidents almost never happen. That's a moonshot worthy of applause.

For a look at Google's prototype, check out the video embedded above. 


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