New Google car has no steering wheel, brake pedal

Thought Google's self-driving car was impressive? The tech company has one-upped itself, debuting a prototype fully autonomous vehicle with no steering wheel, gear, or brake pedal.

This image provided by Google shows a very early version of Google's prototype self-driving car. The two-seater won't be sold publicly, but Google on Tuesday, May 27, 2014 said it hopes by this time next year, 100 prototypes will be on public roads.

A car with no wheel. No brake pedal. No shifting gears. And perhaps coming to a California street near you.

Google unveiled its prototypes of entirely autonomous cars on Tuesday. The car drives completely through sensors and internal controls -- no steering wheel or brakes are accessible by passengers. This is a step away from Google’s previous self-driving car project, which featured the same controls seen on human-driven cars, but drove itself. Google says it is attempting the project to create a safer and more comfortable driving experience, though they are still several years out from anything that would be close to market. With Google drawing attention to its self-driving innovations, will the tech company soon add “automobile maker” to its long list of services?

“Ever since we started the Google self-driving car project, we’ve been working toward the goal of vehicles that can shoulder the entire burden of driving,” says Google self-driving car project director Chris Urmson in a blog post. “Just imagine: You can take a trip downtown at lunchtime without a 20-minute buffer to find parking. Seniors can keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys. And drunk and distracted driving? History.”

Google says the car, which externally looks like a combination of a Smart Car and a Volkswagon Beetle, has sensors that can detect roadblocks, blind spots, and other objects over a distance of two football fields. Right now, the car’s speed is capped at 25 miles per hour and it is fully electric. Inside, there are two seats (with seat belts) and in place of the usual car dashboard there is a screen that displays weather and distance to destination, as well as storage space for bags or groceries. In order to start the car, passengers hit one button between the seats. The car does the rest.

Google invited reporters and several members of the public to take the cars on test rides in a secluded parking lot near its Mountain View, Calif. headquarters last week, and the reaction was generally positive. In a video made by Google, an elderly woman praises its textbook driving ability (it accelerates into turns, “just like I learned in driver’s ed,” she says) and a blind man says it would vastly improve his mobility. New York Times reporter John Markoff, who called the first self-driving car test ride “boring” due to its easy handling, said this ride was also uneventful, but felt more impressive.

“It was a cross between riding in my office elevator…and memories of riding in the Disneyland Tomorrowland people mover as a child,” Mr. Markoff writes.

He also questioned why exactly Google is pushing in this direction. Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, told him, “Regardless of Google, I think the right model for most of the world will be not through vehicle ownership. These should be provided as services for the most part.”

And Google likely won’t be the one to connect this “moonshot” tech with the practical world.

“The fact is that we have the technology to deliver and it’s likely we’re going to have a lot of partners who might be automakers, parts suppliers, service providers, cities and countries,” Mr. Brin added.

Though Google was characteristically secretive about its motives, it isn’t surprising that it is hesitant to become a car manufacturer. Google has always been a tech company first – its interest lies in mapping the world (through data) and then selling that through products that supplement pre-existing industries (see: advertising, Google for Education, Google Shopping). Though it hasn't shied from inventing products, such as Google Glass, it has little experience in mass manufacturing. Mostly, it doesn’t have to – its virtual tech is already a part of most Americans’ daily lives.

Sticking with the tech side of the self-driving car also puts it on the easy road to autonomous vehicles. The technology development has a foot on the accelerator; regulation keeps self-driving cars in park. Whoever ends up manufacturing these vehicles will have to deal with the tricky question of who is culpable in an accident caused by a self-driving car, which states allow self-driving cars in what capacity, and any myriad of questions that will likely pop up as this nascent technology interacts with decidedly low-tech US roads.

From here, Google says it will be testing a fleet of 100 autonomous cars on California roads later this summer, and taking user input as to what they would like to see in this tech, similar to what Google has done with Project Tango and Glass.

“We’re looking forward to learning more about what passengers want in a vehicle where their number one job is to kick back, relax, and enjoy the ride,” Mr. Urmson adds.

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