Making the rounds on the blogosphere is “A First Drive,” video of the Google Driverless Car Project prototype as it shuttles around a few test subjects — at safe speeds of about 25 MPH — with its “invisible chauffeur.”
As reported in The Dish, reviews of the car are beginning to come in. For one, it is decidedly not stylish; many of the volunteers, upon seeing it for the first time, exclaimed it is “cute.”
Megan Garber of The Atlantic sees the vehicle as “a cross between a Volkswagen Beetle and a Disneyland ride.”
What the car does have is the most important feature of a driverless car: a sense of security. With any new technology — especially one so beyond the pale as an autonomous vehicle — the benchmark is going beyond the “creep” factor, to make it something people will actually want to use.
It is easy to dismiss anything new as creepy; Google’s job is to take driverless cars right up to that proverbial line-in-the-sand, yet give it that crucial feeling of familiarity that makes new technology easier to adopt.
For its part, Google emphasizes safety over substance in the new vehicles; there are backup steering and braking systems in the case of failure. In addition to the top speed of 25 MPH, the windshield is made of plastic and the car’s front end is a soft material, for additional protection for pedestrians. Also provided is a giant “panic” stop button, while Google employees monitor the vehicle every time it hits the road.
According to the official Google blog:
We’re planning to build about a hundred prototype vehicles, and later this summer, our safety drivers will start testing early versions of these vehicles that have manual controls. If all goes well, we’d like to run a small pilot program here in California in the next couple of years. We’re going to learn a lot from this experience, and if the technology develops as we hope, we’ll work with partners to bring this technology into the world safely.
The idea is not to make the car “cool,” but to create a palatable product with the ability to navigate through the unpredictability of city streets. Certainly, that there is “tons of testing” yet to be done.
Then again, at this pace, it is only a matter of a few years before swarms of driverless cars — which Google co-founder Sergey Brin likened to using a chairlift — will find their way to the open road.