Self-driving car by Google
Google’s self-driving vehicles will have recognizable faces designed to win human hearts and minds. Google hopes to begin testing its custom-made robot cars on the roads of Northern California starting in 2015. Google has unveiled the first fully working road-legal prototype of its self-driving car. The original plan was to create a car that was completely driverless, but California introduced some new rules this year that stipulated that test cars must also have manual controls (steering, pedals) so that a human driver can take over if needed. If all goes to plan, Google hopes to partner with a real car maker to bring a self-driving vehicle to market in the next five years. Whether the commercialized driverless car will look like the overly cutesy Google prototype remains to be seen.

For the last few years, Google’s self-driving efforts have been focused on retrofitting existing cars (primarily the Toyota Prius and Lexus 450h) with the necessary hardware and software to autonomously drive a few towns and highways in California and Nevada. Now, after hundreds of thousands of accident-free miles, Google is confident enough in its self-driving tech that it’s taking the next steps towards commercialization. In May it unveiled a semi-functioning prototype (and a very cute promotional video, which is embedded below), and today it is unveiling a completed, fully functioning prototype that is road-legal.

Image credit: Google (Google’s latest self-driving car prototype from December 2014)

The biggest changes, though, aren't visible from the outside: To comply with new legislation in California, this new prototype has a full set of manual controls — a steering wheel, pedals, etc. Basically, to prevent the roads being flooded with (potentially) dangerous self-driving cars, test vehicles must allow for “immediate physical control” — i.e. there has to be a driver in there that can slam on the brakes if the car’s software misbehaves. Google had previously hoped that its prototype self-driving car would have just a single button — a big stop/go button in between the two passenger seats — but for now, its self-driving cars will need to have the usual manual controls as well.

Google says it’s going to spend the next few weeks and months zipping around its test track, and then if all goes to plan we should see the cute little car on the streets of California “in the new year.” Eventually, Google hopes to produce around 200 of the prototype cars — which might seem like a lot, but for something as risky and bleeding-edge as autonomous driving, trust me when I say that there’s no such thing as too much testing. Long-term, Google is hoping to find industrial partners (i.e. car manufacturers) that can bring its self-driving tech to the mass market within five years.

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