Google to custom make its own car with no steering wheel


In what is the biggest announcement since Google first revealed their car project, it has announced that they are building their own car, a small low-speed urban vehicle for two with no steering wheel, throttle or brakes. It will act as a true robocar, delivering itself and taking people where they want to go with a simple interface. The car is currently limited to 25mph, and has special pedestrian protection features to make it even safer. (I should note that as a consultant to that team, I helped push the project in this direction.)

This is very different from all the offerings being discussed by the various car companies, and is most similar to the Navia which went on sale earlier this year. The Navia is meant as a shuttle, and up to 12 people stand up in it while it moves on private campus roads. It only goes 20 km/h rather than the 40 km/h of Google's new car. Google plans to operate their car on public roads, and will have non-employees in test prototype vehicles "very soon."

This is a watershed moment and an expression of the idea that the robocar is not a car but the thing that comes after the car, as the car came after the horse. Google's car is disruptive, it seems small and silly looking and limited if you look at it from the perspective of existing car makers. That's because that's how the future often looks.

I have a lot to say about what this car means, but at the same time, very little because I have been saying it since 2007. One notable feature (which I was among those pushing for inside) is a soft cushion bumper and windshield. Clearly the goal is always to have the car never hit anybody, but it can still happen because systems aren't perfect and sometimes people appear in front of cars quickly making it physically impossible to stop. In this situation, cars should work to protect pedestrians and cyclists. Volvo and Autoliv have an airbag that inflates on the windshield bars, which are the thing that most often kills a cyclist. Of the 1.2 million who are killed in car accidents each year, close to 500,000 are pedestrians, mostly in the lower income nations. These are first steps in protecting them as well as the occupants of the car.

The car has 2 seats (side-by-side) and very few controls. It is a prototype, being made at first in small quantities for testing.

More details, and other videos, including a one of Chris Urmson giving more details, can be found at the new Google Plus page for the car. Also of interest is this interview with Chris.

I'm in Milan right now about to talk to Google's customers about the car -- somewhat ironic -- after 4 weeks on the road all over Europe. 2 more weeks to go! I will be in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London and NYC in the coming weeks, after having been in NYC, Berlin, Krakow, Toronto, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Oslo, the fjords and Milan. In New York, come see me at Singularity U's Exponential Finance conference June 10-11.


Interestingly low speed restriction, which'd seem to limit it to very urban areas; once you're out of such (or residential only areas in smaller towns), many non-highway roads are posted as at least 30mph, and up to, as a rough guess, 45mph. Unless I lived in San Francisco proper, I'm not at all sure self-ownership of one would work for me in the Bay Area. I'm thinking the speed also puts an effective limit on trip distance at about 10 miles, after which I'd think many people would get frustrated at the amount of time needed to get there compared to what they're used to.

To be honest, this sort of reminds me of how the Segway was both promoted and received; they could be very useful for a fairly limited set of travel circumstances, and in the Segway's case, its price far exceeded what its worth was to many people with respect to how often they were in that set of circumstances and how often their travel needs were outside it. Yeah, this'd be 2-3x as fast as a Segway, and covered, with space for a small amount of cargo, but I think that max speed is too slow for non-heavy urban areas. And obviously highways are out of the question save for the middle of rush hour. : -)

With a top speed of only 25 mph it'll have trouble on intra-city arterial streets like four-lane boulevards and avenues, expressways, etc. (I recently counted the number of expressways there are in Santa Clara county and there are remarkably many of them.) Not being able to go above 25 mph also seems like a potential safety issue, for either keeping up with traffic flow or being able to put on a little extra speed to get out of a hazardous situation. I'm surprised its top speed isn't 35 mph.

I agree that the 40 km/h restriction seems strange. I wonder if this was specified so as to make the car less worrisome at the outset to the general public. Google might prefer the public demanding a higher speed limit rather than having Google impose a higher limit than people are comfortable with at the outset. But a 40 km/h limit could be dangerous if it compels other drivers to try to move around the Google car. I like the absence of a steering wheel. I think it's unrealistic to think that the general public is going to be like a Google employee tester who has his or her eyes on the road and is ready at a moment's notice to take over control. Better to assume that the person in the car cannot and will not take control and so the system has to be designed to be able to handle that situation. One thing I would like to see more information on is the ability of these cars to handle bad weather conditions and specifically snowy and icy conditions.

Brad, this 25 mph speed limit appears to be an actual rule / legal limit for NEVs which this car seems to fall under. I thought the 25 mph limit was Google imposed and they would gradually go up from there. How is google going to get beyond that as I don't see much of a market for 25 mph limited cars. Is this rule easily changeable?

The NEV limit is indeed one reason you would want to do a car that only went 25mph. It vastly reduced the number of regulations on your vehicle. This is a prototype vehicle, one built to learn. It is fully expected that you learn and develop at lower speeds on a limited set of roads, and then you learn how to expand the set of roads, and increase the speed, either complying with regulations for this, or perhaps even waiting for regulators to adjust the rules as needed for the new technology.

Full "cars" as opposed to NEVs have huge numbers of extra regulations. You simply couldn't make a vehicle like this under the FMVSS today. But you might make one under a new future FMVSS when it arrives. In the meantime, Google and anybody else who is willing, can experiment and provide a useful vehicle for certain types of territories, like more urban areas.

The robocars are a no-brainer for active adult/retirement communities esp. those already allowing street legal golf carts and where people often just drive in a limited mileage radius. Don't seen any discussion re: this and would think robocar developers would pounce on places like Sun City, AZ as areas where these cars would prosper.

Fellow Google consultant Larry Burns, who was formerly a VP at GM, has written extensively for years about early deployment in the planned communities for seniors.

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