Not content dominating the web, Google has its sights set on revolutionising the automotive industry. The Google car is the company’s first fully autonomous prototype; capable of taking passengers from A to B without a steering wheel or pedals in sight. Naturally, the automotive industry is worried but we're still a long way from seeing Google cars on the road.
The Google car is the result of five years of research. Although the technology it uses is similar to systems already seen on autonomous Mercedes and Volvo models, Google is approaching the challenge from a very different angle. The vehicle (illustrated in a more finished form, above right) can be summoned to wherever you are by tapping on your smartphone. Google says this opens the possibility of a transport network where you have access to a vehicle rather than owning one.
“Cars aren’t used 96 per cent of the time,” said Google co-founder Sergey Brin. “In peak time, 30 per cent of city driving is people looking for parking. That goes away if you have cars that drive themselves and drop you off and go find another passenger.”
Although the car is an early prototype, Google has plans to build around 200, in cooperation with an unnamed Detroit manufacturer, by year’s end. These’ll initially be trialled by Google’s test drivers, but eventually the public will be invited to get involved to learn just how cars such as this might be used.
Beyond that, Google’s already talking with several car makers, and imagines itself working with manufacturers, fleet providers, suppliers and governments to bring this tech safely into the world.
The car itself is fully electric, limited to 25mph and intended for urban use. Its combination of lasers, radar and cameras (17 sensors in total) builds up a full 3D picture of surroundings within a 200m radius, so it can react accordingly. Countering fears about the safety of autonomous cars, Google claims it never gets sleepy or distracted like humans, and has a 360-degree awareness.
A defensive driving style is also built in, so the car never veers into a driver’s blindspot, steers away from vehicles being driven erratically and pauses 1.5 seconds when a red light turns green. Also, if a main system fails, back-ups kick in to bring the car to a safe standstill.
As you can see from the preview video (below), creature comforts have been kept to a minimum – the sparse design will apparently allow Google to learn from the cars and adapt them quickly.
Road testing is scheduled to begin later this summer, using a fleet of roughly one hundred prototypes. Although early versions will include manual controls in case Google’s safety drivers need to override the automatic system, if all goes to plan, a small pilot programme could begin in California within the next two years.
Google is not alone in seeking to improve the motoring experience in this way, Apple has also expressed an interest in self-driving tech, while traditional manufacturers like BMW, Nissan and Volvo are all working on their own systems.
Not everyone is convinced, though. A leading auto industry expert warns self-driving cars could be hacked and involved in ‘spam jams’. Wil Rockall, KPMG cyber security team director, said: “Self-drive cars will probably work via Web connectivity and, just as large volumes of electronic traffic can be routed to overwhelm websites, the opportunity for self-drive traffic being routed to create disruption is a very real prospect.”
A big question mark surrounding autonomous cars such as Google’s is the insurance implication, and exactly who’s responsible if something goes wrong. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) believes that in the early stage of auto driving, it’s likely to follow the same process as aviation.
Scott Pendry, ABI’s policy adviser, motor, said: “It’s likely the driver will be held liable in a crash if they’re able to step in and intervene, overriding the tech by making control inputs.” But as responsibilities shift to the car full-time, this could change. “As vehicles become increasingly connected with others – and as control transfers from human to computer – liability may follow that transfer of risk.”
What do you think about the Google car and self-driving cars generally? Will they be a flash in the pan or the answer to our future transport woes? Join the debate in the comments section below...