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Google's Self-Driving Car Prototype Ready to Hit the Road

The first fully functional version of Google's self-driving car combines steering, braking, and brains—but no steering wheel

2 min read
Google's Self-Driving Car Prototype Ready to Hit the Road
Photo: Google

Google unwrapped an early Christmas present in the form of the first “fully functional” version of its compact self-driving car last Monday. The company plans to begin testing its two-seater, all-electric vehicle on public roads in Northern California starting in 2015.

Google is the first big company to unveil a self-driving car prototype built from scratch rather than something based on an existing car model, according to the San Jose Mercury News. It’s also one of seven companies to have won approval from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles to begin testing driverless cars on public roads since September. (It got its cars licensed in Nevada in 2012.) But Google still needs additional approval from state officials before it can legally test such cars on public roads without a human driver.

According to an official Google blog post:

The vehicle we unveiled in May was an early mockupit didn’t even have real headlights! Since then, we’ve been working on different prototypes-of-prototypes, each designed to test different systems of a self-driving carfor example, the typical “car” parts like steering and braking, as well as the “self-driving” parts like the computer and sensors. We’ve now put all those systems together in this fully functional vehicleour first complete prototype for fully autonomous driving.

Google’s self-driving car includes a number of notable features designed to make pedestrians and cyclists less afraid of the idea of a robot car. For instance, the car’s front end includes foam and a soft windshield to dampen the blow of any potential collision with soft-bodied objects. But the car’s final design would only have start and stop buttons for the human passengers; no wheels or gas and brake pedals. That’s a strong indication of Google’s ambitions in leaping ahead with the driverless car future.

Previous Google tests of self-driving cars—modified versions of Lexus and Toyota vehicles—have taken place with a human driver behind the wheel just in case. Google eventually hopes to test its new self-driving prototype without human drivers sometime next year. It’s negotiating with officials at NASA's 2000-acre Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California, to carry out tests without human drivers on federal property as a way of dodging California state laws.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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