In case you’ve been living under a rock, autonomous driving technology is no longer the stuff of dreams or movies only. Automakers have made significant progress in that department, so much so that we’ll start seeing some of these vehicles hitting the open road for real by the end of the present decade.
Tech giant Google’s self-driving cars have gotten a lot of attention in recent years, especially the latest generation. But what do you know exactly about them? Here are answers to five key questions:
1. Google is not a car builder, is it?
From experimenting with autonomous driving technology on modified Lexus RX 450h, Audi TT, and Toyota Prius vehicles to signing a deal with FCA to test self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans, Google has invested a lot to revolutionize personal mobility.
However, the most valuable brand in the world currently has no intentions to become a dedicated car manufacturer, instead searching for partners to ultimately turn its technology into a mainstream product.
“FCA has a nimble and experienced engineering team, and the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan is well-suited for Google’s self-driving technology,” said John Krafcik, Chief Executive Officer, Google Self-Driving Car Project. “The opportunity to work closely with FCA engineers will accelerate our efforts to develop a fully self-driving car that will make our roads safer and bring everyday destinations within reach for those who cannot drive.”
2. What’s that weird-looking thing on wheels?
Google has also developed its own custom vehicle, widely known as the “Google Car,” which was introduced in May 2014 and is assembled by Roush Enterprises with equipment from Bosch, ZF Lenksysteme, LG, and Continental. A fully functioning prototype was unveiled in December of that year.
It’s a pretty unique and radical, pod-shaped design that resembles a cartoonish koala. The powertrain is electric, and there are only two seats. More importantly, it relies on a special and highly advanced artificial intelligence system called Google Chauffeur, which gathers data from the surrounding environment via its cameras, radar, and LIDAR sensors to build a 360-degree picture.
Google claims it can detect objects as far as two football fields away in all directions, including pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles — or even fluttering plastic shopping bags and rogue birds. The software processes all the information to help the car safely navigate the road without getting tired or distracted.
3. Where’s the steering wheel? Where are the pedals?
This new Google Car ditches all the familiar touchpoints of a regular vehicle. There’s no steering wheel and no pedals to operate it as Google designed the pod to operate completely free of human interaction. At the same time, though, the company assures there are fail-safe systems in case of an emergency allowing occupants to pilot the car or bring it to a stop.
4. Just how safe is it, really?
It’s estimated that around 33,000 Americans die each year on the road, and human error is believed to be responsible for 94% of those deaths. Now, you may have heard about accidents involving Google’s self-driving cars, but all of them were said to be the fault of inattentive drivers in other vehicles.
There have also been 341 situations where the passenger had to take control back from the car’s computer. A report from Google claims that 272 of those were due to technological failures, and only 13 would have resulted in an incident. That’s pretty impressive given the cumulative 2.5 million kilometres Google’s driverless cars have logged.
5. What’s next?
Launched in 2012, Google’s testing fleet continues to include both modified Lexus SUVs and its own prototypes vehicles, with California, Washington, Texas, Nevada, and Arizona serving as proving grounds. For now there are test drivers aboard all vehicles, learning how people perceive and interact with them and uncovering situations that are unique to a fully self-driving car.
The biggest hurdle remaining arguably is a legal one. In December 2015, the California Department of Motor Vehicles issued long-anticipated proposed regulations governing autonomous vehicles. If adopted, these regulations would require self-driving cars to have a steering wheel and pedals, and a human driver onboard who holds an “autonomous vehicle operator certificate.” They would also hold the occupant responsible for accidents and violations of traffic laws, regardless of whether or not they were at the wheel.
Many self-driving car advocates are demanding federal laws, however, and lobbying by Google Car project manager Chris Urmson is underway. Google is indeed pushing Congress to give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) new powers to grant it special, expedited permission to sell cars without steering wheels or pedals. The hope is to achieve this by 2020.