May 28, 2014
Google’s Self-Driving Cars Project Now Fully In Gear
Peter Suciu for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
On Tuesday Google announced that its self-driving vehicle project is fully in gear. The project, which was announced back in 2010, has worked toward the goal of providing a vehicle that could shoulder the burden of driving.
"Just imagine: You can take a trip downtown at lunchtime without a 20-minute buffer to find parking. Seniors can keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys. And drunk and distracted driving? History," Chris Urmson, director of the Self-Driving Car Project at Google, wrote in a Google blog.
Google's announcement, of course, follows last week's news that California's Department of Motor Vehicles approved regulation effective this coming September that would allow automobile manufacturers that have secured the proper permits to test driverless cars on public roads.
"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," added Urmson. "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."
Urmson is a former Carnegie Mellon University roboticist and now he directs the car project at Google.
The fact that these cars won't have a steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedal does bring up the question whether the cars would be truly street legal in California, which has deemed that test vehicles have a test-driver – an authorized person with the proper class of license who could also take physical control of the car at any time.
However Google did not actually announce that its vehicles would be tested on public streets. In fact, it would seem that this would not be the case for a number of reasons.
While the cars will have sensors that remove blind spots, and can further detect objects out to a distance of more than two football fields in all directions, the first batch of test vehicles will have the speed capped at 25 mph. The New York Times also reported that "the front of the car will be made from a foamlike material in case the computer fails and it hits a pedestrian."
The combined speed cap and soft material are both there because crashes are unavoidable in the real world and probably likely in test scenarios. Google has even acknowledged this fact.
"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 Google project and former US Department of Transportation administrator in charge of vehicle safety research and regulations, told Recode.
Moreover there will be room for test subjects to take a ride, but Google has expressed that these first 100 vehicles – which will be rolling out later this summer – are designed for learning, not luxury. As such the cars are "light on creature comforts."
Despite the fact that these might not fit with the newly mandated rules from the California DMW, Google announced that if all goes well in controlled testing, it would like to run a small pilot program in California in the next couple of years.
Image 2 (below): An artistic rendering of Google's self-driving vehicle. Credit: Google Self-Driving Car Project