Google says its driverless car can probably drive better than you can

 

Google has unveiled a new vision for the self-driving car, showing off its latest model on Tuesday at Re/Code's Code Conference. The vehicle, revealed in an interview with Google co-founder Sergey Brin, was conceived and designed by Google as part of its ongoing self-driving car project. Here's a closer look at Google's latest model:

What's new about this car?

Google has had a self-driving car project for a while now, so you may be wondering what the fuss is all about. The difference is this: In the past, the company had always added its self-driving technology into existing car models. The little two-seater that Google is now showing off is designed completely by the tech giant.

And you can tell, because Google has designed a car that's unlike any automaker would have created. The most obvious difference? There's no steering column. The car also doesn't have any brakes or accelerator. It's operated completely by software.

It does have a flexible windshield, a foam front and two sets of braking and steering systems, reports Re/Code. Just in case.

By design, it's also no luxury car. To quote Google's company blog post, the vehicle lacks "creature comforts," and is equipped with just two seats, a space for passengers' belongings, start and stop buttons and a screen to show passengers the route.

How does it drive?

The project appears to build on the self-driving car technology that we've already seen come out of Google and high-end car companies, which use a variety of sensors placed all over the vehicle to feed information to the part of the car responsible for steering. According to Google, the sensors on its cars can see a distance of "more than two football fields." Google also capped the car's speed at 25 miles per hour, as a check against any nightmarish visions you may have about robot cars careening out of control.

But it's important to note that these cars are actually driving entirely by themselves. Previous models of Google self-driving cars were monitored by two Google employees who could seize control of the car in case of problems, Re/Code's Liz Gannes reported.  The new cars don't have those kind of monitors, Gannes said, though Google is obviously keeping a close watch on its few prototypes.

So, how's the ride? Google says it's smooth and calm, which it backs up with rider comments from its test drive videos.

 

In fact, Google claims that its cars might be better drivers than many of the humans behind the wheel. "Our vehicles move smoothly on the road," Chris Urmson, Google's director of the self-driving car program,  said in an official company video. "If anything, they are more courteous and more defensive drivers than normal drivers."

Can I get one?

Nope, sorry. It's still early days for the prototype, but the company said that it hopes to have 100 of its cars on public roads by this time next year -- cars that will have some manual controls. The company hopes to start a pilot program in California in the next couple of years "if all goes well," according to an official company blog post.

What's the big picture here for Google?

Google, which has posted videos of the new vehicle, appears to have some clear objectives for  the self-driving car project.  The first aim is to try to eliminate driving accidents by using cars that rely on software to steer.

Second, Google is playing up the idea of an improved quality of life for owners of the self-driving cars. For example, the promotional video showed a blind man, as well as several seniors who may no longer feel comfortable driving, getting behind the...er...windshield...of the new car. There was also a busy mother who said that a driverless car would let her reclaim the minutes she spends in transit to share more quality time with her son.

Google is far from the time when it might be able to push these driverless cars out at scale, but Urmson did sketch out one possible application in a behind-the-scenes video: a sort of driverless car ride-share program.

"Imagine a world where you get in your car, it takes you where you want to go, and then you get out. And you don't have to search for parking. You just leave it, and it goes off and lets someone else get to where they're going," Urmson said.

That gives us a glimpse of the scope that Google's self-driving car team is thinking about.

How close are we to self-driving cars of any kind, really?

Plenty of other companies are also looking into this technology. In fact, driverless cars were the talk of this year's Consumer Electronics Show for the second year in a row as automakers such as Audi and BMW showed off their dreams for a driverless fleet.

Google has been at the forefront of lobbying for the legalization of self-driving cars for over a year now. In 2012, Nevada passed legislation to approve self-driving car licenses. Colorado considered, then shelved, a bill to do the same last year.

And California recently passed its first standards for self-driving cars on its roads. Those rules take effect on Sept. 16, and require that anyone operating a driverless car undergo extra training to operate the vehicles on public roads. Manufacturers who want to test self-driving cars also have to apply for a permit to do so and must get a $5 million insurance or safety bond, reports Ars Technica's Megan Geuss.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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