By Dee-Ann Durbin, AP
MOUNTAIN VIEW, California–The latest version of Google’s self-driving car �X a pod-like two-seater that needs no gas pedal or steering wheel �X will make its debut on public roads this summer, a significant step in the technology giant’s mission to have driverless cars available to consumers in the next five years.
This prototype is the first vehicle built from scratch for the purpose of self-driving, Google says. It looks like a Smart car with a shiny black bowler hat to hide its sensors, and it can drive, brake and recognize road hazards without human intervention. It has more capabilities than the prototype Google introduced last May, 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 federally required safety features, so it can’t go more than 25 miles per hour. It’s electric, and has to be recharged after 80 miles. And the pod can only drive in areas that have been thoroughly mapped by Google.
At first, it will likely even have a steering wheel and gas pedal �X current California regulations require them. Those regulations also require a driver to be able to take back control of the car at any time. But Google is lobbying for more flexible regulations.
Google will initially build and test 25 pods, mostly in neighborhoods surrounding its Mountain View headquarters. It will eventually build between 50 and 100, and will broaden testing to sites that are hillier and rainier.
The ultimate goal, says Google co-founder Sergey Brin, is computer-controlled cars that can eliminate human error, which is a factor in an estimated 90 percent 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 a car company, but wants its technology to be adopted by automakers.
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 �X his young son thinks it looks like a koala because of the nose-like black laser on the front �X 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, which might not even look like anything on the road today.
Convincing drivers that driverless technology is safe is one of the hurdles the company must overcome. Earlier this week, 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 1.7 million miles 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. Is the Car Trustworthy?