Not content with dominating the web, Google has its sights set on revolutionising the automotive industry and has revealed its first fully-operational self-driving car.
Ex-Hyundai US boss John Krafcik has joined the company, signalling that the Google car project's momentum is starting to build ahead of a real-world release. Krafcik will lead the operation, with the first public road tests starting soon.
The Google car is the company’s first self-driving car, capable of taking passengers from A to B without a steering wheel or pedals in sight.
In May 2014, the company unveiled the first prototype of its vision of a self-driving car. But it was just a mock-up – on releasing the picture of its new fully-functioning autonomous car, Google said: “[It] was an early mock-up – it didn’t even have real headlights!”
Since then, Google has worked hard at bringing its idea into reality. “We’ve been working on different prototypes-of-prototypes, each designed to test different systems of a self-driving car—for example, the typical “car” parts like steering and braking, as well as the “self-driving” parts like the computer and sensors,” the firm said.
“We’ve now put all those systems together in this fully functional vehicle—our first complete prototype for fully-autonomous driving.”
But the search engine colossus said that “safety drivers” will “continue to oversee the vehicle for a while longer, using temporary manual controls as needed while we continue to test and learn.”
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 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.”
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.
Google's director of the self-driving division, Chris Urmson, told interviewers at the 2015 Detroit Motor Show the firm has no intention of becoming an 'automaker' meaning if the tech did make it to production, the actual vehicle that utilises it would be built by an established car firm.
Prototypes tested earlier this year were fully electric, limited to 25mph and intended for urban use. A 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.
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.
California is one of a number of American states that is allowing car manufacturers test full-autonomous cars.
Volkswagen Group told Auto Express in November it has licences to pilot self-driving Audis in Nevada, Florida and California to clock-up hundreds of miles to test the technology.
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...