Google announced this week that it's building 100 self-driving car prototypes and Lloyd wrote a great piece discussing various city and planning implications, questions, and suggestions. Here are a few more points about the self-driving cars themselves that we thought were pretty interesting.
1) It's electric!
Google didn't make a big point of this, but the self-driving cars will be 100% electric. That would certainly make them much greener than typical cars. Their small size would further help on the green front, but one commenter noted to me that the aerodynamics could be much better. Indeed. However, my understanding is that the shape of the vehicle is centered around the laser and radar sensors, maximizing their view.I didn't initially catch that the cars would be electric, as it wasn't mentioned in Google's article. However, that explains why some passengers were so impressed by how "smooth" the ride was. That's a classic feature of an electric car.
2) You can summon the car!
As The Guardian puts it, "the car is summoned by a smartphone for pick up at the user’s location with the destination set." I know that's what we all think of when we hear about "self-driving cars," but I thought that step of the technology was still a long way off.
3) It has no pedals, no steering wheel
A key point that was very quickly mentioned in Lloyd's post is that the cars only contain "two seats (with seatbelts), a space for passengers’ belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen that shows the route—and that’s about it."
In other words, there's no steering wheel and no pedals. I think this is the first company to build such a car. The Guardian claims that it is.
4) The car will have a range of 100 miles
On a full charge, the car will have a range of 100 miles, which is a lot for a non-Tesla 100% electric car. And the infamous and overhyped "range anxiety" shouldn't be a problem for anyone, as the car should be smart enough to know whether or not it can get to its destination.
5) This ain't your grandpa's GPS
The car uses GPS and satellite navigation systems, but for the close-up work it uses radar, lasers, and cameras in order to leave you on the sidewalk instead of the middle of the roadway and in order to avoid any potential humans or hazards in its vicinity. It can recognize the difference between a curb, a pedestrian, a bicyclist, a car, a sign, a traffic light, and even road construction. It can also identify road markings. The car can see up to 600 feet (183 meters). In case measurements aren't your thing, that's the length of two football fields.
6) The car doesn't want you to feel too at home
When your ride is over, the car makes sure that you get all your stuff by giving you a reminder to not leave any belongings. It is a shared vehicle that may well be summoned somewhere else before you use it again, but it understands that we may need some time to remember that.
7) If it does collide with someone or something...
Naturally, there's a lot of concern about the safety of self-driving vehicles, but one of the key projected benefits is that these will be considerably safer than vehicles driven by humans. Nonetheless, Google is ensuring that, if one of its cars does bump into something, the damage and harm will be minimal. The car uses a foam bumper and a flexible windscreen. If a human body is hit by one of these (inside or outside), they should do a better job absorbing the energy and not crushing the human.
8) 25 mph, max
As briefly noted by Lloyd, the self-driving cars are limited to a maximum speed of 25 mph (40 kph). This means it will also have to avoid certain roads. At the beginning, I assume this would mean that the cars would rive down more pleasant residential roads but result in longer travel times (as if that matters much when you don't have to pay attention to the road... and are simply enjoying the fascinating reality of a self-driving car). If these became the norm, I imagine the max speed would be quite a bit higher by then, but more ideally, cities could be planned around slower roads and more coordinated traffic patterns. That's the ideal I'm envisioning anyway.
9) Yes, the car is smiling at you
If you looked at the car and thought the Google engineers purposefully made it look like it had a face, you were right. Their intention was both to make it “very Googley” and to make other roadway users feel more comfortable with and amiable towards the car.
10) Google isn't planning to manufacture these cars
Confused? Don't worry, this isn't just for fun. Google doesn't plan to manufacture self-driving cars at any point, but it plans to partner with an auto manufacturer once the technology is ready. Frankly, it's hard to image that not being Tesla. Elon Musk has noted that Tesla is also working on self-driving (or autopilot) technology and has said he's quite positive Tesla will be the first car manufacturer to bring this technology to market. He's also very good friends with Larry Page, and Page has said that, if he died, he "should" leave his billions to Musk. Lastly, as noted above, this is an electric car, and Tesla is the rock star of electric cars. It's very, very hard to not see these two partnering up down the road.
Google's 100 prototype self-driving cars are being built in Detroit by...
Well, the announcement didn't say who was building them, so this isn't yet a fact, but there's been plenty of speculation since Google named Detroit as the manufacturer's home. One possibility mentioned was Rich Marks' crew. Marks owns a small EV company, is Presidential of an environmental transportation solutions company, and used to work at GM. I've communicated with Rich many times over the past few years and imagine he'd be qualified, but haven't seen any clues that would imply his startup EcoV Electric, or the company he's president of, EnVironmental Transportation Solutions, are involved in this.
Plus, there's this comment under that Jalopnik article: "I can confirm Google's Autonomous vehicle is being developed and worked on by Roush Industries." That sounds convincing. Another commenter had suggested Roush as well.
We'll see, but I'd put my money on the guy who says, "I can confirm..."
Update: Jalopnik Detroit has followed up with the person who said he could confirm. Jalopnik seems fairly convinced, but has also discovered that Google is working with multiple automobile partners in Michigan. Google specifically wrote, "We are working with a number of top-notch automotive suppliers and technology companies. (We are not naming them at this point.)" Here's more info regarding Roush and Google:
Following up on a tip we received through a burner comment, our source says Roush is in the midst of hiring engineers for the Google project and is making interviewees sign a confidentiality agreement keeping the partnership secret. Our source also says current Roush employees have been making their way back and forth between Mountain View and Michigan as of late.
The relationship is "close," this source says. According to this tipster, Roush builds the vehicles for Google at their Allen Park facility outside Detroit while Google handles the coding that makes the vehicles autonomous. Google doesn't do much with hardware — discounting their only physical forays with Google Glass, Chromebook Pixel and Project Loon — so a solid, experienced hardware-maker was needed as a partner.
So why Roush? Our source didn't say, but as we pointed out — look at their portfolio. Roush makes everything from amusement park-ride parts to aircraft prototypes. We probably should have known something was up between Roush and Google when an ambassador for Google Glass hosted a Roush racing event that was livestreamed via Google+ and YouTube earlier this month.