Silicon Valley Internet giant Google isn’t an automaker by any stretch of the imagination. Yet when it comes to autonomous driving technology and self-driving cars, Google’s extensive autonomous driving research program — which has been running more than six years — eclipses that of many major automakers.
To date, Google’s self-driving car program has relied on retrofitting production vehicles with autonomous-driving technology, but next month, it will begin testing a self-driving car that it designed from the ground up to be a 100 percent autonomous vehicle.
The cars — bubble-shaped two-seat all-electric ‘pods’ without a conventional steering wheel or controls — were first unveiled back in May on a special closed-circuit test course. Eight months on, and the 100-strong test fleet of self-driving vehicles is ready to hit the roads… albeit roads within Google’s campus.
As Wired explains, there’s very little difference between the original concept car we saw back in May and the road-legal version that Google will be introducing onto public highways next month. Unlike the prototype, the road-legal vehicles will have conventional reflector-based headlights and turn signals, and the main LIDAR vision system used to give the vehicle a clear view of its surroundings now sits flush with the roof.
The rest of the car — including its steep, blunt nose, two-person bench-seat and wide doors, remains the same. In fact, Google’s latest incarnation of the self-driving car now looks exactly as it did in the early artist’s renderings for the project.
As we detailed back in May when the prototypes were first unveiled, Google isn’t interested in becoming an automaker. Instead, its primary focus is on the technology inside self-driving cars and the social benefits that autonomous vehicles could bring.
As well as offering unprecedented levels of personal freedom to those with impaired sight or mobility problems, self-driving cars could also dramatically reduce the levels of traffic on the road not to mention eliminate the need for personal car ownership for a large proportion of suburban and urban residents.
But while Google’s self-driving vision is one step closer than it previously was, there’s a mass of legislative and practical hurdles to overcome before self-driving cars become an everyday sight in our major cities.
Then there’s the matter of speed: at the moment, Google’s own self-driving vehicles are limited to a top speed of 25 mph, meaning they’re only really useful for urban centres and gated communities. If its 100-strong test car program proves successful, Google will look to work with mainstream automakers and other technology partners to bring its self-driving system to the mainstream market through licensing agreements and consortiums.
And increase the speed, of course.
You can also support us directly as a monthly supporting member by visiting Patreon.com.