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5/28/2014
04:03 PM
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Google's Self-Driving Cars Have No Steering Wheel

The future of driving looks like a Disneyland ride, but less fun.

Google's 10 Big Bets On The Future
Google's 10 Big Bets On The Future
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Google hopes to get its self-driving cars ready for public deployment by 2018. And though reality and politics might push the date back, the company is pressing ahead with a new round of prototypes. Google calls its latest experimental vehicles "self-driving cars" but they don't look much like cars on the inside because they're missing many of the controls we expect in a car.

Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving car project, in a blog post says the company is developing prototypes for fully automated vehicles. Unlike the Toyota Prius fleet that Google has been using to test its self-driving car systems, these new prototypes have been designed without steering wheels, accelerator pedals, or brake pedals because those controls won't be necessary.

"Our software and sensors do all the work," explains Urmson. "The vehicles will be very basic -- we want to learn from them and adapt them as quickly as possible -- but they will take you where you want to go at the push of a button. And that's an important step toward improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people. "

[It's come to this: Read Smartphoning While Walking: App Says Look Up!]

These prototypes will be no-frills cabins on wheels. Their speed will be capped at 25 mph and their interiors will be spartan. You'll get two seats, luggage space, start and stop buttons, and a screen to display the route. Whether passengers will have much choice in selecting the route remains to be seen. Although Google suggests its cars can make roads safer, the company has enough doubts about the perfection of its systems that each seat will come with a seat belt, just in case.

According to Urmson, Google is building about 100 prototypes of this sort and plans to conduct tests in versions that retain the manual controls later this summer. Google hopes to take its testing to the next level with a small pilot program in California in a few years. The company recently discussed the progress it has been making with its sensor system.

Google sees its cars as liberating, allowing people to travel downtown for lunch without planning an extra 20 minutes to find parking, to assist seniors and others unable to drive on their own, and to free us from the risk of driving while drunk or distracted. If only our self-regulating selves worked better.

But many drivers will prefer to liberate themselves. For all that Google's cars have to offer, they will also take something away, the opportunity to participate in one's own journey. There's something to be said for travel optimized by math and technology. But far more has been said, at least in American books and films, about the joy of the open road and the freedom to make choices, good or ill.

Being a passenger is fine. With your attention freed from driving, perhaps you'd like to listen to a few ads? But sooner or later, you'll want to take the steering wheel and set your own course, if you can.

What do Uber, Bank of America, and Walgreens have to do with your mobile app strategy? Find out in the new Maximizing Mobility issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest.

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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ChrisBrazendale
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ChrisBrazendale,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/28/2014 | 4:57:59 PM
Looks terrible
If that's the future of transport you can keep it. And based on some bad experiences I have had with GPS - they are hardly infallible - I can see lots of problems. It kind of makes sense, in that google seems to want to make cars as awful as their software!
TeaPartyCitizen
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TeaPartyCitizen,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/28/2014 | 5:09:13 PM
Those that kill
Old people, teenagers and alcoholics kill on the road. With self driving cars these dangers will go away. 
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
5/29/2014 | 12:32:38 PM
Re: Those that kill
>Old people, teenagers and alcoholics kill on the road. With self driving cars these dangers will go away. 

That assumes the law makes it mandatory to use these cars if you're a teen or elderly. Somehow I don't see that happening.
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
5/29/2014 | 4:32:24 PM
Re: Those that kill
I'm getting a motorbike.
anon8414999999
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anon8414999999,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/28/2014 | 5:38:47 PM
What about winter driving?
Hah... Unless these things can accuratly calculate a patch of black ice in the winter, or know exactly what do do if you hit a patch of ice either down hill or uphill, they will be completely useless. Nothing trumps a well trained driver when it comes to winter driving. I should know. I've been driving in Alaska for over 10 years. 
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
5/28/2014 | 7:43:01 PM
Re: What about winter driving?
I expect Google's self-driving cars to follow the Segway hype cycle. In other words, they'll remain a niche commodity for decades to come.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
5/29/2014 | 7:27:22 AM
Re: What about winter driving?
I can see them becoming very attractive for ride sharing and for taxi services but I also see traditional taxi services fighting them all way to production.  Ride sharing is becoming popular in urban areas where parking comes at a premium and most things are within walking distance but people want a car to use on weekends or longer trips.  Since the cars are street legal and you won't be running people over on the sidewalks I can see them selling better than the Segway.  They are a progression of a current technology that people are comfortable with so it's not quite the same.   If the price was right I would buy one just for my commute so that I could work in the car or catch a nap on the way home.
mak63
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mak63,
User Rank: Ninja
5/30/2014 | 6:25:02 PM
Re: What about winter driving?
 
Unless these things can accuratly calculate a patch of black ice in the winter, or know exactly what do do if you hit a patch of ice either down hill or uphill, they will be completely useless
 
Don't worry man. I don't believe this type of cars will be deployed in Alaska in any time soon. Probably in 10 years or more. By then, due to global warming, Alaska will be the new California.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Ninja
5/31/2014 | 2:31:38 AM
Re: What about winter driving?
anon ... 

These cars are going to be full of sensors. I am pretty sure winter driving is being covered.

You mention well trained drivers, however, the majority of drivers don't belong to that category.

Research shows that the higher percent of accidents are caused by human error. Self-driving cars can make roads safer. 

-Susan
JimP906
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JimP906,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/28/2014 | 5:40:33 PM
Goog's self driving cars
Wow! Sharpe lookin car!

HAHAHAHAHA

she...at
SpocktheCuriousBovine
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SpocktheCuriousBovine,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/28/2014 | 5:50:55 PM
City Driving?
I will never want to give up a quiet drive in the country or down a seaside winding road...but if these cars get me downtown while allowing me to catch-up on email or digest an interesting read...GREAT!


My concern is 'avoidance'....How about a circumstance where someone driving 20KmH over the speed limit - blows away a late amber or red light.  Are these units better than humans for being aware of *that* type of threat?   I ask because I have avoided several such accidents over the years....mainly by having *NO* faith in stoplights for stopping aggresive drivers from pushing limits well into the danger zone.

StCB
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Ninja
5/28/2014 | 7:42:24 PM
Re: City Driving?
@Spock they'll need programming in defensive driving. At least there's no concern about drunk, drowsy, or otherwise incapacited driving for these cars. 
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
5/28/2014 | 5:51:13 PM
Self Driving
This looks like bad news for cab drivers, more than bad news for drivers in general. it's perfect for congested metro areas. Uber meets Zip.  
randerson349
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randerson349,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/29/2014 | 8:30:17 AM
Legal Conundrum
The only way this would be safe is if all vehicles are self driving. That is going to require government fiat to require it, can you say obamacar?  Who is going to be held responsible when my obamacar runs over my neighbors 3 year old, running into the street to get their toy? Doesn't matter how good the sensor system is, you can't avoid the laws of physics.
Susan Fourtané
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Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Ninja
5/31/2014 | 7:45:53 AM
Re: Legal Conundrum
randerson, 

" ... Doesn't matter how good the sensor system is, you can't avoid the laws of physics."

I am pretty sure the sensor system of your self-driving car will be better than your reaction time and reflex system. Again, most accidents are caused by human error.

-Susan 
jgherbert
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jgherbert,
User Rank: Ninja
5/31/2014 | 4:25:56 PM
Re: Legal Conundrum
@randerson349> 

"The only way this would be safe is if all vehicles are self driving. That is going to require government fiat to require it, can you say obamacar?"

Ok, first of all, you win teh internets this week for "Obamacar". Awesome :-)

"Who is going to be held responsible when my obamacar runs over my neighbors 3 year old, running into the street to get their toy?"

That's a very interesting avenue of thought; once the control goes away from the vehicle occupants and into software, what happens to liability? Taxi passengers aren't liable when a taxi has an accident, are they? Ever had out of date information in your GPS? What happens if the mapping data misses something like a one-way street and takes you down it the wrong way?

Even if there's no steering wheel, we may need a big red "OMG WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" button on the dash.
batye
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batye,
User Rank: Ninja
6/2/2014 | 2:28:52 AM
Re: Legal Conundrum
interesting, how I see it... Google changing our way of life... I do hope for good :)... as with technology you never know...
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
6/4/2014 | 3:40:00 AM
Re: Legal Conundrum
I have watched the news from TV and this looks really interesting. There is one question mark, can it get legal approval? How Google can prove its safety and the reliability? What will happen if the computer/OS on this card stop working? The technology makes our life better and better but we need to think about and be prepared about the possible negative effect.:-)
batye
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batye,
User Rank: Ninja
6/4/2014 | 11:42:35 AM
Re: Legal Conundrum
interesting question... thing in IT technology never 100%...
Stephane Parent
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Stephane Parent,
User Rank: Strategist
5/29/2014 | 9:04:52 AM
Reaction time?
I find it fascinating that people worry about a driverless car handling extraordinary events. We need to remember that humans have, on average, a 0.7 s reflex. While that might sound good, 700 ms is an eon for a computer. I'm pretty sure the driverless car will react much faster than a person can.

In fact, I can imagine situations where the car will have adapted to circumstances before they have fully registered in the passenger's brain.
JonNLakeland
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JonNLakeland,
User Rank: Moderator
5/29/2014 | 10:48:48 AM
Re: Reaction time?
My fear for early models would be stuttering - identifying too many items as threats/obstacles in an effort to live up to safety hype and making for a bumpy ride during real road conditions.

The lack of manual navigation functions is somewhat of a concern, but not overwhelmingly. How will it deal with things like driveways, or new construction? Someone earlier mentioned requiring all cars to have self driving features added, but it could go beyond that - requiring all cities to update a database about road construction, maintenence, traffic stops/police dragnets, etc. How much bureaucratic overhead are we willing to accept to make texting in the car legal again? ;)

Also, car hackers/hijackers could become a thing.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
5/29/2014 | 10:56:20 AM
I want the wheel
I have to agree with Tom's conclusion about the yearning to take the wheel yourself. A big part of the joy of driving is actually driving the car: maneuvering, switching lanes, speeding up. It's fun. I don't see the Google Car becoming anything more than a glorified scooter used for very short trips.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
5/29/2014 | 3:23:31 PM
Parking
What is the plan when they say the car will negate searching for a parking spot? That it will just continue to circle the city block the whole time you're in a show or restaurant? Seems like at some point it will have to park itself, in a place where someone will not block it in. I can visualize coming out of a shop, summoning my car with my Android app, and it's blocked in by some double-parking delivery driver. 
mak63
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mak63,
User Rank: Ninja
5/30/2014 | 6:43:42 PM
Tango
Our software and sensors do all the work," explains Urmson.

Perhaps a tablet with Project Tango will be at the wheel of these   self-driving cars.

There is a nice take of Google Project Tango here: Tango
SachinEE
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SachinEE,
User Rank: Ninja
5/31/2014 | 1:40:26 PM
Re : Google's Self-Driving Cars Have No Steering Wheel
I believe it's still too early for Google to even contemplate stripping away all kinds of manual controls on their cars at this stage. At least not if they will be using humans during the tests! There are still so many variables that they are yet to take into account and even they know that this is a learning cycle that will probably never end unless the cars are fitted with artificial intelligence. At this point, there should at least be a steering wheel that you can use if you should encounter an emergency that the car was not programmed to deal with. Even though Google will never admit it (think of Google Search) they don't know everything!
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