On May 27, Google unveiled its latest futuristic technology: the self-driving car. Once the domain of science fiction writers and more adventurous engineers, the self-driving car unveiled by the California software giant is very real and is set to undergo a rigorous series of tests over the coming months to ensure its viability for national distribution.
Upon initial inspection, Google’s newest offering resembles a car in only the most technical sense. It has four wheels, a windshield, two seats and a pair of doors. There’s no steering wheel, no pedals, and very few instruments. The car also boasts a large sensor atop its roof and styling that resembles nothing else currently on the road, but serves as a reasonable extension of Google’s company-wide emphasis on cute minimalism. The design may look cute and non-threatening, but that’s the point: the goal was to design a vehicle that would be embraced by the public.
The car works like an enormous, rolling smartphone. It has only two buttons inside, one functioning as a start/stop feature and the other as an emergency alarm, accompanied by a large digital screen, reminiscent of an iPad. Routes are selected and plotted out via Google’s Maps app. The cars will be able to travel up to 100 miles on its electric motors after being summoned to pick up its passengers via a specialized app.
The cars are dependent on its roof-mounted sensors, which can sense and track moving objects up to 200 yards away in all directions. Currently, all Google cars are monitored by a pair of Google’s scientists, just in case something goes wrong with the sensor rig. By the time the cars reach mass production, this will no longer be reality, and the cars will be fully automated.
These aforementioned sensor systems are similar to those currently available in luxury cars from brands like Mercedes-Benz, which can stop a car in advance of a road hazard completely independently of the driver, a technology that in many ways represents the basic premise behind the driverless car. These systems cut out human fallibility and distraction and shoot for increased safety through mechanical reliability.
As this technology matures, it has the potential to fundamentally change the auto industry. The mechanical and design implications are obvious, but this technology could also affect or possibly eliminate auto insurance, given the lack of driver culpability in any accident. In addition, it has the potential to drastically reduce fatalities on the road, as it intrinsically prevents drunk driving, distracted driving, and reckless driving. This will, in turn, make it even easier for consumers to go about their daily activities without fear of endangering others or being punished by the law.
Although driverless cars are still in their infancy, they represent a new automotive era, completely removed from all types of transport historically available to humanity. This new focus on driver and passenger safety, already seen in the development of new safety features in luxury cars, will change the auto industry in ways that nobody can yet predict.