Look, Ma, no hands: Google to test 200 self-driving cars

By By David Undercoffler

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Published: Friday, May 30 2014 6:30 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken Wednesday, May 14, 2014, a Google self-driving car goes on a test drive near the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. Four years ago, the Google team developing cars which can drive themselves became convinced that, sooner than later, the technology would be ready for the masses. There was just one problem: Driverless cars almost certainly were illegal.

Eric Risberg, Associated Press

General Motors. Toyota. Google?

One of the world’s largest technology companies is getting into the car business — and hoping to turn drivers into passengers. The tech giant announced on its blog Tuesday that it plans to test about 200 of its own two-seat self-driving cars.

“We’ve been working toward the goal of vehicles that can shoulder the entire burden of driving,” the company wrote. “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.”

The main goal of the tidy, gumdrop-shaped cars isn’t to push Google into the business of building cars. Instead, the company wants to develop self-driving software that will “improve road safety and help people who can’t drive.”

The testing program will start later this summer, with a handful of primitive prototypes hitting the roads around Google’s Mountain View headquarters.

These early builds will have manual controls for the test drivers to override the cars’ autonomous driving systems, as required by current California law.

But Google plans to build the bulk of the cars as fully autonomous — no steering wheel, no gas or brake pedal.

Inside will be a pair of seats with seat belts, space for your belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen showing where the car is going. California law is expected to allow the operation of such vehicles on public roads — with a permit — by the end of this year.

The cars were built with safety in mind. They have sensors that eliminate blind spots and look in every direction for more than 200 yards. The top speed of the first vehicles will be limited to 25 mph.

“We’re going to learn a lot from this experience, and if the technology develops as we hope, we’ll work with partners to bring this technology into the world safely,” Google said on its blog.

The small electric cars were built in Michigan using parts from suppliers to mainstream brands. The electronics and software to control them were assembled in Silicon Valley.

But don’t expect Google to take on the automakers directly.

“The chances of them getting into manufacturing are slim,” said Bill Hampton, publisher of AutoBeat Group. “I don’t think they want to do that. They want to control the information that will allow driverless cars to operate. ... Figuring that out is worth a lot of money.”

Other analysts agreed.

“I can’t imagine Google would want to be in the low-margin manufacturing business,” said Egil Juliussen, the director of research and advanced driver assistance systems at IHS Automotive. “They would be the software provider, which can be the most profitable part of such a car.”

Google’s self-drivers are also notable because their fully autonomous setup, which completely eliminates the driver, leapfrogs the incremental approach mainstream automakers have taken to self-driving cars.

“Google’s announcement is pretty striking,” Juliussen said. “They’re taking the big step, going straight into autonomy without worrying about the intermediate steps.”

Brands such as GM, Volkswagen, Ford, Nissan, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz are already testing self-driving technology. Many high-end luxury cars offer elementary radar systems that allow automatic cruise control, autonomous braking and assistance staying in driving lanes.

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