Google has been working on its driverless car project for some time now, but so far it has looked like an experimental alpha. Now there is beta and perhaps soon a release candidate.
Google' driverless car has been making news headlines and it is impressive. States have even added laws to allow driverless cars to operate - but only if there is a human driver ready to take over and that slightly spoils the whole idea. Anyway the actual driverless car that Google has been using to test the sensors and the software is a long way from a real product. It is essentially a modified production car with a lot of research gear added. It was generally supposed that at some point in the distant future someone, and not necessarily Google, would turn the alpha into a production vehicle.
Well the far future is here because yesterday Google announced a prototype driverless car. It is a small two-seater and it doesn't have a steering wheel or any other controls. You simply tell it where you want to go and press the go button.
The early version of the prototype still has what looks like a bolt-on sensor tower ...
... but artists' impressions of how this might evolve show something that looks like it belongs:
I don't know about you, but to me it looks like something you might find in a Lego kit. Even so the desire to simply get into one, set the destination and sit back seems very desirable - but only if you can cope with getting there at 25mph. The first prototypes are optimized for safety and for some reason Google seems to think that limiting the speed to 25mph is safer than say 50mph - well it certainly will seem safer, but it is very much in the spirit of having a man walk in front of the vehicle with a red flag. The Google blog says:
"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. On the inside, we’ve designed for learning, not luxury, so we’re light on creature comforts, but we’ll have two seats (with seatbelts), a space for passengers’ belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen that shows the route—and that’s about it."
You can see it in action in a slightly strange Google promo where people are driven around trying to look unscared:
My guess is that the slightly unnerved reception will vanish as soon as users get used to the idea that they are in a simulated railway car with the only difference being that the rails are provided by the software.
For the moment the prototypes will be restricted to giving people rides in parking lots and later they will have manual controls, so as to be legal, and take to the roads as part of a pilot program in California.
The horizon for a commercial version seems to be a few years ahead, but at least it is now looking like something real.
Do you think you would buy one?
It seems more likely that what we are looking at is some sort of shuttle or car-for-hire service. I wonder if they will serve Google ads on the navigation screen...