10 things you might not know about Google’s driverless car

Published: 29 May 2014

► All hail the new Google car!
► New autonomous pod shown
► First iteration of driverless car 

Google made a major announcement this week when it confirmed its plans to build its own autonomous car. Co-founder Sergey Brin revealed the project at a conference in California on Wednesday. It might look like an extra from the set of the movie Cars, but you’d better believe it: Google wants to launch a driverless car very much like what you see here.

1) Google has designed its own self-driving car

To date, internet giant Google has dabbled with autonomous Toyota Priuses, Lexus SUVs and other mules testing out its self-driving software and hardware. But this week the search giant confirmed it has designed its own vehicle, rather than piggy-backing an existing manufacturer’s chassis. It’s a significant moment. The world’s largest and most valuable technology company will start competing with traditional car makers within the next 12 months. Prototypes will be made by a specialist in the Detroit area (rumoured to be Roush) and Google is likely to contract out manufacturing of the production version. But the design you see here is a 100% original Google blueprint.

2) Google’s autonomous car will have no steering wheel or pedals

Google says its self-driving car will have a stop-go button, but no steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedal. It says this will make it appear less threatening – and drivers, presumably, will be less tempted to wrest control if there’s no steering wheel to grab when they get nervous approaching a roundabout. There is, however, an emergency stop button to force the Google car to a halt if a human being decides their nerves and redundant feet have had enough.

3) You will be able to drive a Google driverless car in 2015

Google has confirmed its intention to launch the first autonomous car in 2015. It plans a fleet of around 200 driverless cars in Detroit as the first beta test. It’s a deeply ironic choice of test venue, being home to the large and convoluted US car industry. Google’s self-driving cars have recently passed 700,000 miles of mostly blemish-free driving, giving the company confidence to launch on a wider scale. ‘We’re really excited about this vehicle – it’s something that will allow us to really push the capabilities of self-driving technology, and understand the limitations,’ Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving project, told the BBC.

4) Internet bloggers have poo-pooed the design

The Google car unveiled this week looks cartoon-like, judging by these first renderings issued by the internet giant. It has no bonnet, an extreme monocab silhouette and a bubble-like profile, like Google’s taken a Tata Nano and blown it up by 300psi. No surprise that online posters have likened it to a Cozy Coupe toy car (below, courtesy of @badgergravling) and other, less repeatable, comparisons. But there’s method in these simplistic, bubble-like lines. This is a clean-sheet design, with no baggage left over from combustion engines or accepted norms of driving positions.

The Google autonomous car has been likened by internet bloggers to the Cozy Coupe toy car

5) Google’s driverless car has a top speed of 25mph

Seems like the Silicon Valley guys are targeting urban areas only. For now… The prototype Google car has a top speed of just 25mph, which will limit the appeal of the modernist two-seater to congested cities. It’s not hard to see that this speed limit could be raised in future, however. Very few punters have been onboard yet, but a few select tech bloggers in the US have reported ‘ample space’ and that the control-free cabin feels ‘a lot like a theme park ride.’

6) Google’s making its car pedestrian-proof in case of teething problems

As well as a (relatively) low top speed of just 25mph for early prototypes, Google is fitting a flexible windscreen and soft-padded materials to the front of its autonomous car. So if the electrics fail and it does biff a pedestrian, you’ll be less likely to be reading scare stories on Google News. 

7) The Google autonomous car uses radar, laser and cameras just like an executive car

There’s no great technological advance here, remember. There’s little evidence – yet – of Google unleashing any spectacular tech leap to make driverless driving possible. Rather, executives in Silicon Valley confirm that GPS, laser, radar and camera sensors monitor the view around the car constantly, cross-referencing it with hyper-detailed new Google Maps to make sure the autonomous vehicle is on track. It’s little different, in all honesty, from the similar systems used by the likes of Bosch or Mercedes-Benz. It’s just that they’re being deployed in a clean-sheet design to make the hardware work better.

8) Google has been working on driverless cars since 2008

Google has been dabbling in autonomous cars since the early 2000s, through the Darpa Grand Challenges, and officially launched its own self-driving project in 2008. It’s been quietly developing the technology ever since, and this prototype has been testing near the Mountain View area of California, near Google’s HQ. It’s been hoovering up select experts in the automotive field ever since. That’s one thing that bottomless funds enable…

9) You hail a Google autonomous car through a smartphone

Passengers summon a Google self-driving car through a smartphone app; you simply plug in your location and desired destination and the car does the rest. A small screen onboard tells you your current position, the weather and speed. And once you’ve arrived, you’re reminded to take your possessions with you. This is very much public transport. A complete mindset change – in a typical Google fashion then. 

10) Google’s car and its plan for world domination

The search giant is adamant its forays outside the computersphere reflect its avowed intent to make the world a better place. Like with its nascent Google Glass programme, it plans to test driverless cars first with its own engineers onboard and then, eventually, with its own explorer programme, where bloggers, influential tech experts and ultimately Jo Bloggs will be able to help shape the future of personal transport. Driving enthusiasts will surely be split on this development. Few of us enjoy driving in traffic jams. But aren’t we ultimately worried that the computers will take over, period?

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By Tim Pollard

Group digital editorial director, motoring news magnet