Co.Design

Google's Self-Driving Car Is Real, And It Looks Like A Tiny Bubble-Car

Aw, look, it's smiling at us. Nice autonomous car!

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.

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8 Comments

  • Tracy Zieber-Minks

    Here's my question: will those who are not allowed to legally drive in the first place, such as those who are medically prohibited because of such conditions as Epilepsy, be allowed to operate these kinds of cars? Do you know the kind of world, the options, this kind of car would open up to those of us who are not allowed to drive a conventional vehicle? This would be astounding!

  • Corey A. Mayo

    No. People who want to still hunt for food, even though they can buy their meat in the nearby food store. It is not an either-or proposition

  • Curtis Griesel

    Google lives on ads. So, this will be collecting information about everywhere you go, to gather information about what advertising can be sold for your viewing. Also, it will make suggested routes based on your previous habits and interests, that Google already knows and will learn more. The more you ride, the more Google will know about you and your habits. Just like Google leverages your search habits to understand you and to sell ads, Google will now leverage your commuting habits for exactly the same purpose. Good or bad? That is up to you to decide. Nobody will force you to take a ride if you don't want to.

  • Corey A. Mayo

    You're not steering the machine so it doesn't need to suggest different routes. You tell it where to go and it takes you there, like a taxi

  • Joel Emmett

    Don't bring them to Utah. Google maps still gets confused by the address system (all numbers and directions).

  • Google is known for it's innovation, but also for it's buggy products (ex: the other day the "add/remove" image option simply disappeared from my Google Places account...had to call tech support to get it resolved).

    If something that simple can be overlooked, who's to say these cars don't decide to drive you off the road. No thanks. Cool technology though. Saw one of these self driving cars in that show "Silicon Valley" show last week.