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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
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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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Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
5/29/2014 | 3:23:31 PM
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. 
Thomas Claburn
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.
Shane M. O'Neill
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.
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.
Stephane Parent
Stephane Parent,
User Rank: Moderator
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.
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.
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.
Thomas Claburn
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.
User Rank: Author
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. 
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.  
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