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

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.

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.  
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. 
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: 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.
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.
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