Google Car May Be Nearing Production

The Google Car

Google has sent several dozen of its Roush-built autonomous cars off to Austin, Texas, for testing on public streets outside of California. The company incorporated Google Auto earlier this year and has been talking to several car companies about building the Google Car. So far, none of those companies has stepped up, and so the possibility that it will produce the Google Car itself is getting closer to reality, according to The Guardian.

Last year, when Google unveiled its low-speed, 2-passenger, self-driving electric car, it said it was going to build just 100 vehicles by the end of 2015. But last week, Sarah Hunter, head of policy for GoogleX, told the California Public Utilities Commission, “We’re … making a few hundred of them. We’re making them to enable our team to learn how to actually build a self-driving vehicle from the ground up.”

What is a Google Car?

Hunter then added some interesting details. “A model where we manufacture cars for sale will require the same sort of electric vehicle charging that exists today,” she told an audience of regulators and politicians. “Our prototype vehicles are fully electric. That’s not to say the eventual vehicle we mass manufacture won’t be a hybrid.”

The Google Car has no steering wheel, brake pedal, or accelerator. “All [the car] has is a ‘go’ button, a ‘please slow down and stop’ button, and a ‘stop pretty quickly’ button,” Hunter says. “The intention is that the passenger gets in the vehicle, says into microphone, ‘Take me to Safeway,’ and the car does the entire journey.”

Google’s self-driving cars currently require highly detailed maps of the areas they’re operating in, with centimeter accuracy with regard to road features like lanes, traffic circles, and stop lights. They are limited to 25 mph so Google can get them onto public roads without expensive and time-consuming crash tests. For now, they require a human driver who can take control in an instant if a system malfunctions.

When Will It Get Here?

All of this means that Google is unlikely to move its self-driving technology into full production any time soon. “We haven’t decided yet how we’re going to bring this to market,” admitted Hunter. “Right now, our engineers are trying to figure out … how to make a car genuinely drive itself. Once we figure that out, we’ll figure out how to bring it to market and in which way. Is it something that we manufacture at scale for sale to individuals? Or is it something that we own and operate as a service?”

That model would pit Google as a direct competitor to Uber, the ride-sharing service that is developing looking to extensively use self-driving cars. Uber’s policy director, Ashwini Chhabra, also spoke at the California Public Utilities Commission last week, saying: “We have a shared goal which is getting people out from behind the wheel of single occupancy vehicles and into safer, more efficient modes of transit.”

Chhabra thinks this would enable highly efficient carpool vehicles that will dramatically improve road safety and reduce emissions. “If global demand keeps steady, we’ll have 3.4 billion cars on the planet by 2050,” he said. “That’s clearly not sustainable. That’s part of why we’re thinking about how to stop ‘carmageddon’, which of all the -geddons is one of the scarier ones.”

When will all this happen? Chhabra suggests that fully autonomous vehicles might be roaming American roads as soon as 2035. The head of an advanced transportation research program at Berkeley disagrees, saying 2075 is more realistic. When asked the same question, Sarah Hunter of GoogleX merely quipped: “Whenever California passes its operational regulations. We’re just waiting for that.”

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.