We've known Google has been working on self-driving cars for awhile now, but all of a sudden, the project is real: last night, Google revealed a working prototype of its self-driving car. It's a two-seater that looks something like a mashup of a Fiat 500, Steve Urkel's car, and a cartoon smiley face.
This isn't a production model; Google is making perhaps 100 of these little buggers mostly as an experiment. They have no steering wheel, no gas or brake pedals, and only two seats. They're powered by an electric engine and are artificially limited to a top speed of 25 mph (good news for the testers). The cars are resolutely simple. Says Chris Urmson, the director of the project, in a Google blog post: "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."
The car isn't designed like other cars; it lacks things most cars have, and not just the steering wheel. It has no mirrors, no stereo, no glove compartment. Though it can only go 25 mph and, according to Re/Code, it was constructed to minimize damage from any collision it might have:
"We imagine at some point there will be an accident with one of these vehicles, so we’ve designed the front end to be soft," said Ron Medford, director of safety for the project and former U.S. Department of Transportation administrator in charge of vehicle safety research and regulations.
The front of the car is built with foam, and the windshield is flexible to reduce the injury the car might inflict if it collided with pedestrians, bikers or anything else, Medford said.
If you look closely, you can also spy a sort of Mona Lisa smiley face on its front. Google says it's aware that the idea of a robotic self-driving car might be a bit threatening to folks used to cars that can't, you know, move themselves around, so the company very intentionally created the friendliest-looking car it could. The car has details that almost make it look like it has a nose and mouth, and the tiny size and gentle bubbly curves of the body make it a very nonthreatening-looking vehicle.
Google and other auto makers have previously experimented with retrofitting existing conventional cars to drive themselves. But this is the first car really designed from the ground up to drive itself. It seems like a curious thing, to sit in the front seat of a car with no controls—almost like riding in a gondola. Check out this video:
Google's reasoning for the self-driving car project isn't hard to grasp, given there are 33,000 auto-related deaths per year here in the States, and an estimated 1.2 million worldwide. Google believes self-driving cars can reduce that danger by up to 90%. For drivers of these cars, that means no more drunk driving, no more falling asleep at the wheel, no more falling victim to blind spots or road rage from other drivers.
"If all goes well, we’d like to run a small pilot program here in California in the next couple of years," writes Urmson on his blog. California is one of the only states, along with Florida, Nevada, and Michigan, where self-driving cars are legal.