The first fully autonomous cars may hit U.S. roads sooner than many might generally have presumed.
Google on May 15 said it has received the green light to begin testing prototypes of its self-driving vehicles on public roads in Mountain View, Calif., this summer.
The cars have been designed from the ground up by Google and are very different from the fleet of modified Lexus self-driving SUVs that the company has been testing for several years.
Google's prototype vehicles are designed to operate without a steering wheel, accelerator pedal or brake pedal. Onboard sensors and software control all operations. The cars will have two seats, space for personal belongings, buttons to start and stop the vehicle, and a screen that displays the route, according to Google. The company will build about 100 prototype vehicles.
During the testing phase, Google will have safety drivers aboard each vehicle, and the vehicles themselves will have a removable steering wheel, accelerator pedal and brake pedal that allow for manual control as needed, Chris Urmson, the director of Google's self-driving project, said. Vehicle speed will be capped at a sedate 25 miles per hour while the car is put through its paces in Mountain View.
Google has been testing the prototype vehicles at its facilities for some time to ensure that all software and sensors work as they are supposed to, Urmson said. The vehicles will operate with the same software used in the Lexus test vehicles, which so far have completed more than 1 million autonomous miles, at an average of 10,000 combined miles per week, he said.
"So the new prototypes already have lots of experience to draw on—in fact, it's the equivalent of about 75 years of typical American adult driving experience," he noted.
"We're looking forward to learning how the community perceives and interacts with the vehicles," Urmson said. The goal of the testing program is to uncover challenges that are unique to fully autonomous cars, he said, pointing to such issues as figuring out where to stop if the car cannot stop at its exact location because of congestion or construction.
The prototype testing should add momentum to Google's efforts to deliver a fully autonomous vehicle over the next few years. The self-driving car initiative is one of several moonshot projects that Google has invested in as it seeks to expand far beyond its search engine heritage.
At a high level, the company has noted that autonomous vehicles, like those it is testing, could one day transport people from one location to another at the touch of a button—and more safely than human drivers. The cars are equipped with technology that Google says allow them to detect objects at a much greater distance than human drivers and respond to dangerous situations more efficiently as well. Autonomous vehicles could help reduce traffic congestion and open up new opportunities for those unable to drive a vehicle, according to the company
Recent information released by Google shows that the company's fleet of Lexus autonomous vehicles have been involved in 11 minor collisions over the course of six years and about 1.7 million miles of testing. According to the company, not one of those collisions happened when the vehicles were in fully autonomous mode.
Google is not the only one working on self-driving vehicles. Several other major manufacturers have been licensed to test similar vehicles in California, including Nissan, Daimler Benz, Tesla, Audi and automotive supplier Delphi.