google self driving prototype may 27 2014Image: Google

No steering wheel. No pedals. Google gets serious about self-driving cars

So you’re fascinated with self-driving cars, eh? Are you fascinated enough to try one that has no steering wheel and no pedals? That’s the next, dramatic step for Google in its determination to create a fully autonomous car.

No matter how cool this all sounds, the thought of ceding all major control to the computer in the car is still a big conceptual leap for most people. That could be why Google’s prototype for this evolutionary shift looks like a simplified Herbie the Love Bug. There’s a cunning LiDAR hat on top, with round, friendly, faux headlights for eyes, what looks like an adorable cluster of sensors for its nose, and of course, a broad smile where a radiator might be (except this will be an electric car).

Inside, there’ll be space for two people (seatbelted, Google hastens to emphasize), a few possessions, and a display to show the car’s planned route.

Google’s blog post confirms the company’s ambitious goal for this prototype’s fleet of test cars: “They won’t have a steering wheel, accelerator pedal, or brake pedal… because they don’t need them. Our software and sensors do all the work.” According to Google, the cars’ sensors will eliminate blind spots and be able to detect everything within two football fields’ distance all around. A warm, fuzzy video of real people using the car underlines the company's positioning of this product as a transformative step in transportation. 

Google’s newest self-driving prototype looks and acts nothing like the Lexus-based experimental autonomous vehicle introduced in 2010. 

In a notable show of caution, however, these prototypes will have a top speed of 25 miles per hour. This is closer to the village-friendly speed of Induct’s Navia self-driving shuttle than Google’s first-gen autonomous driving vehicle.

Google’s newest experimental car may be modest in ability, but not in scope. The company plans to build “about a hundred prototype vehicles” with manual controls to start testing in the summer. In “the next couple of years,” a pilot program could launch in California. Google also mentioned working with partners “to bring this technology into the world safely.”

We could all name some drivers of dubious merit whom we’d love to demote to a passive lump in a car like this—a car that knows better. It’ll be fascinating to watch Google’s progress with this experiment, but I have one nagging doubt: Are we all going to be on that list of demoted drivers someday?   

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