MOUNTAIN VIEW, California - Google's latest self-driving car will make its debut on public roads later in 2015 in the US.
Google has taken significant step in the technology giant's mission to have driverless cars available to consumers in the next five years. Google says its prototype is the first vehicle built from scratch for the purpose of autonomous-driving.
What’s cool about it? Well it can drive, brake and recognise road hazards without human interference. Google has come a long way since its prototype introduced in 2015, which was so rudimentary it had fake headlights.
The new pod isn't designed for a long trip, or a joyride. It lacks air bags and other required safety features, so it’s limited to a top speed of 40km/h. It's battery-powered and has a range of 128km. The pod can only drive in areas that have been thoroughly mapped by Google.
VIDEO: Google's self-driving car in action
If launched, it will likely be equipped with a steering wheel and accelerator - current California regulations require them. Those regulations also require a driver to take control at any time in case of an emergency. However, Google is lobbying for more flexible regulations.
Google will initially build and test 25 pods, mostly in neighbourhoods surrounding its Mountain View headquarters. It will eventually build 50 to 100 units.
'ELIMINATE HUMAN ERROR'
The ultimate goal, says Google co-founder Sergey Brin, is to produce computer-controlled cars that can "eliminate human error", which is a factor in an estimated 90% of the 1.2-million road deaths that occur worldwide each year.
Self-driving cars could also improve traffic congestion and transport the elderly and disabled. Google shocked the auto industry in 2010 with its announcement that it was working on a driverless car. Brin insists Google doesn't aspire to be an automaker but wants its technology to be adopted by automakers.
Brin said: "We want to partner to bring self-driving to all the vehicles in the world a group of journalists and community members gathered earlier this week to take rides in the prototype.
For now the traditional automakers are pursuing their own self-driving technology, but with less ambitious timeline of 10 to 15 years for a truly driverless car.
Chris Urmson, who directs Google's self-driving car project, says the slow-moving, friendly looking prototype — his young son thinks it looks like a koala because of the nose-like black laser on the front — is a good bridge between the company's current test fleet of 20 specially outfitted Lexus SUVs and the more advanced, higher-speed driverless cars of its future.
Urmson said: "This vehicle is really all about us learning. This vehicle could go on a freeway, but when we think about introducing the technology, we want to do that very thoughtfully and very safely."
11 CRASHES IN SIX YEARS
Convincing drivers that driverless technology is safe is one of the hurdles the company must overcome. Earlier in May 2015, in response to questions from The Associated Press, Google acknowledged 11 minor accidents in the six years it has been testing autonomous cars.
Urmson says the company is proud of that record, and notes that Google's vehicles have completed more than 2.7-million kms of testing. He says all but one of the accidents were caused by drivers in other cars; in the only incident caused by a Google car, a staffer was driving in manual mode.
Consumer’s question whether they can trust self-driving cars to work all the time, who will be liable if there's an accident and how self-driving cars will interact with regular cars, says the consulting firm J.D Power and Associates. In a 2013 survey of US drivers, J.D. Power found only one in five was interested in a fully autonomous car.
PUBLIC FEEDBACK WANTED
Urmson says Google needs to do a better job of educating people about self-driving technology and updating them on Google's progress. It's building a web site to teach people about the technology, and the site will feature a monthly report that will include details of any accidents involving Google cars.
The public will be able to send feedback when they interact with the cars.
The prototype cars built in suburban Detroit by Roush Industries — have the same array of radars, lasers and cameras as Google's fleet of Lexus SUVs, which allows them to share data. If one car's camera spots orange cones and construction signs, for example, it will alert all the others to slow down in that area or reroute around a lane closure.
PODS CAN PREDICT PEDESTRIAN BEHAVIOUR
Dmitri Dolgov, the head of software for the self-driving car project, says Google's software has improved and the car is capable of better identifying and classifying objects, like trees and mailboxes, and predicting behaviour of pedestrians and other cars.
For example, Google's cars will slow down if they sense that a car in the next lane is speeding up to cut in front of them. In a recent test, a Google car paused when a cyclist ran a red light. Another car, driven by a human, drove ahead and nearly hit the cyclist.
The system isn't perfect: On a test drive, one of Google's Lexus SUVs seemed momentarily confused when a mail truck partially blocked its path. Later, during a demonstration drive in Google's parking lot, the prototype — without a wheel or pedal — braked when it spotted a row of folding chairs. It had to figure out that the chairs wouldn't move before it proceeded.
Egil Juliussen, the principal analyst of infotainment and advanced driver assist systems for the consulting firm IHS Automotive, says Google's "moon shot" strategy is difficult and riskier than just adding features to existing cars. But he thinks it could ultimately be successful. Google could make self-driving urban pods for universities or urban centers, for example, or sell its technology to automakers.
Brin ended off by saying: "Our goal is to create something safer than human drivers. "
GOOGLE'S SELF-DRIVING CAR: Google's new self-driving car will be tested in on public roads later in 2015. Image: AP / Tony Avelar