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GOOGLE’S ADORABLE SELF-DRIVING car prototype hits the road this summer, the tech giant announced last week. Real roads, in the real world. The car has no steering wheel or pedals, so it’s up to the computer to do all the driving.
As cool as this sounds, it isn’t a huge technological step forward. The goofy little cars use the same software controlling the Lexus and Toyota vehicles that have logged hundreds of thousands of autonomous miles, and Google’s spent the past year testing its prototypes on test tracks. And, in keeping with California law, there will be a human aboard, ready to take over (with a removable steering wheel, accelerator pedal, and brake pedal) if the something goes haywire.
What’s important here is Google’s commitment to its all-or-nothing approach, which contrasts with the steady-as-she-goes approach favored by automakerslike Mercedes, Audi and Nissan.
Autonomous vehicles are coming. Make no mistake. But conventional automakers are rolling out features piecemeal, over the course of many years. Cars already have active safety features like automatic braking and lane departure warnings. In the next few years, expect cars to handle themselves on the highway, with more complicated urban driving to follow.
“We call it a revolution by evolution. We will take it step by step, and add more functionality, add more usefulness to the system,” says Thomas Ruchatz, Audi’s head of driver assistance systems and integrated safety. Full autonomy is “not going to happen just like that,” where from one day to the next “we can travel from our doorstep to our work and we don’t have a steering wheel in the car.”
Google thinks that’s exactly what’s going to happen. It isn’t messing around with anything less than a completely autonomous vehicle, one that reduces “driving” to little more than getting in, entering a destination, and enjoying the ride. This tech will just appear one day (though when that day will be remains to be seen), like Venus rolling in on a scallop shell, fully formed and beautiful.
In the past few years, Google has used about two dozen modified Lexus RX450h SUVs to drive nearly a million autonomous miles around Silicon Valley. It let select employees commute in self-driving cars on the highway. Its vehicles have been in 11 accidents in all that time, none of them serious, and none of them caused by Google. These days, the fleet is logging 10,000 miles a week, focusing on surface street driving, where variables like pedestrians, intersections, and cyclists make for a lot of complications. It expects to have a finished product by 2020.