What’s a driverless car if it still has a driver? That’s what we rode in last month when we visited Google in Mountain View, Calif., and “drove” its driverless car. The big question was, what does Google plan to do with this technology? Does it plan to build its own car? Now the company has leaked at least a partial answer to those questions with its own development prototype, a car that literally has no steering wheel (see the video).
The Google self-driving cars we witnessed were Lexus RX models, with full production safety systems. The latest Google cars aren’t yet street legal. But that didn’t stop the company from offering rides recently around a parking lot to some consumers who could benefit from the technology.
The cars are tiny, two-passenger city cars with a top speed of 25 mph. These purpose-built pods are designed to help pick up and transport people who can’t drive themselves, demonstrating how a driverless car can extend mobility for older or disabled passengers. Google has said it hopes to have the technology on the road by 2017, at least in some places.
At this point, these cars are pure prototypes, with small battery packs, plastic bodies, and a rudimentary tubular roll cage. Unlike the Lexus RX prototypes, these dedicated vehicles also have backup steering and braking systems, so they don’t need a driver to assist.
Google is also testing new pedestrian safety systems, including a foam front end and a flexible windshield.
When underway, passengers can see a map of where they’re going and can tell the car when to start on the route or stop where desired. Otherwise, as one rider said, “It knows when to stop, it knows when to go.”
For elderly, disabled, or visually impaired people, Google's futuristic transportation pod could make a big difference.