Google is taking another huge step in its pursuit of developing self-driving cars by choosing to build its next generations of the vehicles on its own, rather than using modified cars from existing automakers.
The self-driving vehicle project was launched by Google in 2010 as a research effort to see how such vehicles could be used to save peoples' lives, cut driving time and curb carbon emissions and pollution. The project began using Toyota Prius hybrid vehicles with trained operators all over the roads and highways of California, and since has expanded to other vehicles. So far, the vehicles have traveled more than 700,000 miles as part of the effort.
Now the project will look more closely at the vehicles themselves by starting from scratch instead of modifying existing vehicles, wrote Chris Urmson, the director of the self-driving car project, in a May 27 post on the Google Official Blog.
"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," wrote 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."
Google plans to build about 100 prototype vehicles, according to Urmson, with testing to begin with the early models later this summer. Those early models will include manual controls as backups while the vehicles are tested and proven.
"It was inspiring to start with a blank sheet of paper and ask, 'What should be different about this kind of vehicle?'" wrote Urmson. "We started with the most important thing: safety. They have sensors that remove blind spots, and they can detect objects out to a distance of more than two football fields in all directions, which is especially helpful on busy streets with lots of intersections. And we've capped the speed of these first vehicles at 25 mph."
Inside the prototypes, there will be few creature comforts, he wrote, but there will be two seatbelt-equipped seats, a space for passengers' belongings, buttons to start and stop and a screen that shows the route.
The vehicles will be equipped with special sensors and hardware that give them their self-driving capabilities while also including special safety features such as a flexible windshield and a foamlike front end to protect pedestrians in the event of a crash, according to Google. The vehicles will also include electric batteries for propulsion as well as primary and backup systems for steering and braking.
The first artist's renderings and photos of the vehicles display rounded vehicles that look a bit like stylized versions of early Volkswagen Beetles.
Previous Google self-driving vehicles so far have included Toyota Prius and Lexus models.