This past Tuesday Google unveiled the latest prototype of its new self-driving car. The newest model looks like a compact cross between a Smart Car and a Volkswagen Beetle. It has no steering wheel, no gas or brake pedals, and is outfitted with a “GO” button and a big red emergency “STOP” button. It’s electric and can travel up to 160 km before needing to recharge.
Google has plans to build 100 prototypes, and expects them to be on the road by next year. They intend to have them built in the Detroit area with the assistance of firms who have not yet been specified.
Google began its robotic vehicle project back in 2008 and has already developed several different versions of this self-driving car (the first one was a modified Toyota Prius). Pilot testing of this model is expected to continue over the next two years and competitors have announced plans to have similar products out by 2020.
How does the thing work? You get inside, push a button to begin and end your ride, and use spoken commands to identify your destination. The vehicle is decked out with sensors and cameras that allow it to analyze what the other cars on the road are doing and respond accordingly. The sensors are able to detect information from their surroundings up to 600 feet in all directions and the vehicle has been programmed to have a “defensive, considerate” driving style, meant to protect its passengers. For example, the car is programmed to wait until after traffic lights turn green before it begins to move.
The vehicle looks a lot like a very goofy cartoon character, right down to its smiley face. Designers arranged its headlights and sensors this way intentionally, to give it a “very Googley” look, and to put other people on the road at ease. It is unclear exactly how comfortable people are going to be with a bunch of driverless cartoon cars on the road in a couple of years.
While the futuristic idea is quite novel, and a lot of the tech community is enthusiastic, many analysts are questioning the usefulness of this kind of product and the liability issues. The car’s limited speed capabilities (40 km/h) make it a bit slow on the road, it only has two seats and limited space for luggage. Analysts have also criticized its silly appearance, saying that to get any consumer interest the design will have to change.
There are also a wide range of liability issues and concerns about computer error or failure. The car relies on an internet connection to navigate and if the signal ever drops, the car automatically comes to a halt. There is also the question of who is responsible if a driverless car is involved in an accident.
A spokesperson for the Insurance Bureau of Canada has said, “ (It is) too early for us to comment on the insurance implications of the Google driverless car.” Canadian tech journalist Matt Braga has also raised the issue of user privacy concerns. Because the vehicle is designed by Google, it will inevitably collect data on its passenger habits. Google currently collects data on all its users through its search engine and email services, and sells this information to third parties.
Braga recently spoke to CBC on the subject saying, “You have this company that already knows things like your purchasing behaviour and who you talk to. They’ll now have this extra data. They’ll know things like, ‘Stacy goes to the gym every Thursday.’ It’s a whole other set of data that could be exciting or terrifying.”