If you’re near Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, this summer, you may see a different kind of robot car driving around without the aid of the person in the front seat. The tech company announced on Friday it will soon release a smaller, more compact version of its driver-assisted vehicles on to roads near its headquarters.
Self-driving vehicles are an area of significant investment at the company and the market for their potentially society changing product is getting ever larger.
There are four states now (two of them contiguous) that allow self-driving cars on the road: Michigan, Florida, California and Nevada. And as other states consider following suit, we’re getting to see exactly how Google brings a product as radical as its self-driving car to market.
The new vehicle was put under some significant stress before Google and the Department of Transportation okayed it to interact with primate-operated vehicles. “We’ve made the car hot, we’ve made the car cold, we’ve done reliability testing, we drive the car through a durability ‘bump track’”, said Google systems engineer Jaime Waydo in a video of the new vehicle the company put out today.
There’s been visible progress since Google’s last car was released into the wild. The latest vehicle will be assisted, if need be, by a single person with a detachable steering wheel, gas pedal and brake pedal in case it needs to be taken over. Older versions required a two-person team of emergency operators.
There are a lot of ducks to get in a row before self-driving vehicles become a regular feature on US highways. Nevada’s Department of Transportation spokesman Tony Ilia told The Guardian that the state had been asked to “brighten up the lane-striping and the buttons”, something that is probably good for all drivers everywhere. But it does point up a significant problem with the potentially cost-saving (and life-saving) innovations: they require regular, functioning, regularly maintained highway infrastructure.
Much of the US can’t even afford to repair its bridges, much less repaint the dotted lines and reflectors on its highways. The built-in hesitation to spend on essentials probably won’t keep Google out of California, but it will make it harder for it and Daimler – which has a series of autonomous vehicles under development – to cross state lines. Google is aggressively petitioning the government on this issue, presumably to reinvest. The company employed lobbyists at multiple government agencies and on several bills, notably H.R. 5021, signed last August, an act that moved .8 bn into the Highway Trust Fund, which maintains interstates.
Google said its ultimate goal was “a vehicle that could shoulder the entire burden of driving” in a release issued Friday morning. “To provide the best experience we can, we’ll need to master snow-covered roadways, interpret temporary construction signals and handle other tricky situations that many drivers encounter.”
Self-driving cars, at this point, require a special license to operate and are available only to the testers of the vehicles, rather than the general population. Both Google and Daimler are hoping to change that, Google in an effort to encourage broad enough adoption to ease congestion in cities and eliminate facilities like parking garages. Daimler’s goals are more straightforward: to make the business of long-haul trucking less reliant on overtaxed drivers.
Both companies have pointed out the human error inherent in more than 90% of traffic accidents; Chris Urmson, director of Google’s project, said last year that ultimately the goal is for its cars to be “more courteous and more defensive drivers” than human beings. “Imagine never losing someone to a traffic accident again,” he said.
Google’s cars have logged more than a million autonomous hours since a few states including Nevada and California made it legal to operate them on public roadways. They have been involved in 11 accidents over the course of that testing. All 11 were the fault of human beings.
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