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.
Google Building Self-Driving Cars With No Steering Wheel, Brake Pedal
“If all goes well, we’d like to run a small pilot program here in California in the next couple of years” using the vehicles in many different scenarios, wrote Urmson. “We’re going to learn a lot from this experience, and if the technology develops as we hope, we’ll work with partners to bring this technology into the world safely.”
Google has even created a new Google+ page where people can follow updates about the project and share their thoughts about self-driving vehicles.
Google declined an eWEEK request for additional comment on the new prototype self-driving vehicles.
More than 1.2 million people die in traffic accidents each year around the world (some 3,400 per day) and about 93 percent of those crashes are due to human error, according to Google. That’s a key area where the idea of self-driving cars can eventually be beneficial, the company maintains.
In April 2014, Google announced that it had started a new effort to teach its self-driving vehicles how to master the challenges of city driving, such as heavy traffic, pedestrians and other urban hazards. The work is continuing to help teach the self-driving cars all the things they need to know as Google might expand its program in the future. The traffic scene in city driving is much different from the freeway driving that the self-driving cars have done so far.
Since Google’s last update on its self-driving car program back in August of 2012, the company has logged thousands of miles on the streets of Mountain View, Calif., where Google is headquartered.
Before an automated car takes the road, Google sends out a driver to map the route and road conditions, logging lane markers and traffic signs to become familiar with terrain, according to an earlier eWEEK report. This road information is relayed to software in Google’s data centers. Armed with this intelligence, the automated hybrid cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic, along with detailed maps. The cars stop at stop signs and traffic lights completely on their own. A trained safety operator sits in the driver seat to take the wheel in case the software goes buggy while a Google software engineer rides in the passenger seat to monitor the car’s software.