The engineering wizards in Google's workshops have unveiled the Chocolate Factory's first attempt at a completely control-free robot car, where passengers entrust themselves entirely to the machine.
In May, Google announced it was going to start building cars without pedals or a steering wheel to test out the practicalities of such a vehicle, and this is the first of a planned 100-car production run. The car is street legal in California and denizens of Silicon Valley may see it trundling down their streets in January – and the UK is also expecting a delivery.
"Today we’re unwrapping the best holiday gift we could’ve imagined: the first real build of our self-driving vehicle prototype," the Google Self-Driving Car Project team said in a blog post. "We’re going to be spending the holidays zipping around our test track, and we hope to see you on the streets of Northern California in the New Year."
The car is remarkably similar to the prototype unveiled in May, with a bubble-like sensor array on the roof and an additional equipment package on the nose of the vehicle. The ground clearance looks low enough to make speedbumps an issue and the entire vehicle looks a tad flimsy for freeway use.
If you do see one of these on the road, however, don’t panic. The prototype has been equipped with temporary manual controls that the driver can use if the software fails. Google has over 700,000 miles of driverless robot car miles under its belt already, but always with someone prepared to take over, just in case.
Google's latest effort is the product of ten years of research into driverless vehicles. Back in 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) offered a million-dollar prize to whomever could come up with a robot car capable of traversing a 150-mile desert course without a driver at the wheel.
That year everyone failed, with no car making it more than eight miles without crashing or just shutting down. But the next year five cars trundled through the 132-mile test route to cross the finishing line, with a team from Google's next-door neighbors at Stanford University winning the prize.
The Chocolate Factory promptly hired most of them, and a fair few of the other teams' top talent as well. Driverless cars have long been a passion of Sergey Brin, and he can get truly eloquent when espousing the benefits, as he sees them.
Whether or not the buying public will go for the idea of a car with no manual controls remains to be seen, and regulators will have to approve the vehicles, as well. So far, lawmakers have been OK with allowing robot cars, so long as a driver can take the wheel when needed.
A hands-free car could be a trickier sell for regulators in the US. But the UK government seems keen on the concept, and anyone who has been forced to listen to a London cab driver's dodgy views might well be tempted by Google's latest prototype. ®