Google Readies its Self-Driving Cars for Real-World Testing On the Roads of California

Just under a year ago, Silicon Valley software giant Google announced the next stage of its ongoing autonomous vehicle research program: to design and build 100 pod-shaped fully-autonomous prototype low speed electric cars that would, in its own words, “shoulder the entire burden of driving,” and “transform mobility for millions of people” around the world, including those who have traditionally been unable to drive a car.

Google says its self-driving car is ready for testing on the real roads.

Google says its self-driving car is ready for testing on the real roads.

Since that announcement, Google has been hard at work refining its self-driving cars, testing them first on closed test tracks and then more recently on the private roads on the Google Campus. At the same time, Google has worked hard to refine its fleet of Lexus 450h SUV self-driving cars, being one of the first companies in the U.S. to put fully autonomous cars on the roads of California under its special autonomous vehicle licensing program.

While its prototype cars will first go on the roads with a detachable steering wheel, pedal box and fully-trained Google engineer ready and able to jump in and take control if needed, its fleet of 100 self-driving pods don’t have a steering wheel.

Google's self-driving pods will use the same on-board software as its Lexus LX450h self-driving SUVs

Google’s self-driving pods will use the same on-board software as its Lexus LX450h self-driving SUVs

On Friday last week, after success with its private road testing program for its own custom-built google cars, Chris Urmson, Director of the Google Self-Driving Car Project announced via an official blog post that Google was ready for the next phase of its development process: real-world, public road tests.

Unlike other full-size, highway-capable self-driving cars we’ve seen developed and tested by automakers like Audi, Nissan and Tesla Motors the Google self-driving prototypes are two-seat, low-speed electric vehicles with a top speed of just 25 miles per hour.  About the size of a Smart ForTwo minicar, they’ve been designed to take on duties in busy urban or suburban environments rather than inter-city freeway trips.

While that might seem like a technological easy way out, it’s not.

Unlike the autonomous driving software being developed by most automakers — which focuses on offering ‘autopilot’ functionality for high-speed freeway travel and stop/go traffic jams as well as traditional car controls for moments when a human needs to take control of the vehicle —  Google is aiming to offer 100 percent, always-active autonomy.

With so many logged miles, the driving bit of Google’s self-driving project is already pretty refined.

That means while its prototype cars will first go on the roads with a detachable steering wheel, pedal box and fully-trained Google engineer ready and able to jump in and take control if needed, its fleet of 100 self-driving pods don’t have a steering wheel.

In the future, Google’s self-driving pods will rely simply on their on-board software, and a myriad of sensors, to keep itself and its occupants safe. Despite only operating at a speed of less than 25 miles per hour, the system will need to be 100 percent infallible.

Google will first test the cars on the roads in Mountain View, California.

Google will first test the cars on the roads in Mountain View, California.

With nearly one million miles of autonomous driving logged by its fleet of autonomous LX450h SUVs thus far — which we note uses the same software as the Pod cars will use — Google says it’s amassed about 75 years of typical American adult driving experience thus far. At the time of writing, it notes that its fleet are logging an additional ten thousand miles of autonomous driving experiences per week. So far, not a single at-fault accident has been logged by any of Google’s cars, with the only accidents thus far being caused by human error, not computer error.

With so many logged miles, the driving bit of Google’s self-driving project is already pretty refined, yet Google says it’s now turning its attention to the kind of testing that can only happen on the public road. It needs to learn how the public reacts to the autonomous vehicle, as well as making some really important discoveries that we’ve never thought about — such as where a self-driving car should stop if there’s no parking at its destination or a road blockage stops it from even reaching its destination.

Like us, we’re sure you’ll want to find out.

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