On Tuesday, May 27, Google unveiled its design for self-driving cars. Big surprises for Google's guinea-pig passengers include the absence of both steering wheel and pedals and a two-seat design that resembles a ride in a theme park.
The new Google car looks nothing like the Toyota Prius, Audi TT, or Toyota Lexus, which Google previously used for its self-driving trials. A laser radar system, with the range finder mounted on the top, however, remains a part of Google's new design.
In this bold iteration, Google, a non-automotive company, is clearly committed to changing the conversation around self-driving cars.
Rather than promoting the self-driving car as an extension to cars we own today, Google is pitching the new prototype as a completely new category of transportation, like a “robo taxi” that picks up the young, the old, and the disabled to carry them from point A to point B.
Google's promo video makes that clear. As Larry Page, Google's co-founder, wrote in the comment section of the video clip, this is “a next step for the self-driving car team… this video says it all.”
Beyond all the technology and regulatory issues anticipated, I firmly believe that the biggest hurdle autonomous cars must clear is us: namely, our deeply rooted — and not entirely unreasonable — distrust of machines.
No, I'm not being a Luddite here.
One of the prevailing, recurrent themes of science fiction, from Karel Capek to the Terminator films, depicts a benevolent machine whose intelligence has progressed to the point beyond that of humans. But somehow, something goes wrong, and we, the humans, don't have a clue about how to stop the machine.
I think Google, a master of its own messaging, has seen the movie. In fact, the company makes mighty efforts in the promotional video to ease that yet-to-surface, basic human trepidation about machines.
Sure, we hear people casually talking about how “cool” Google's self-driving car is. It is cool. But in reality, I think many of us would still need a lot more convincing before plunking down, sometime around 2020, serious money for an autonomous car.
However, if the self-driving car neither looks nor acts like a car as we know it today, and if it's designed to function as a personal bus or cab instead of a replacement for our own driving machine, I think that Google's new self-driving car might be onto something.
It's one thing that conventional automakers promote the Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) as a suite of new safety bells and whistles. But it's a whole different ballgame talking the existing customer base into buying autonomous cars. Decoupling the concept of the car from the very act of driving is a radical departure for any car OEM.
Clearly, the next chapter of the self-driving car isn't about designing the super-cool car of the next decade, which most carmakers are very good at.
Google's co-founder Sergey Brin believes the new Google car prototypes have “the ability to change the world and the community around you.” Well, even if you don't totally buy into the altruistic pitch that Google cars will help the underserved, Google has taken an irrevocable first step in changing the debate on the autonomous car, from being a personal luxury to a tool that serves the social good.
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times
This article was originally published on EBN's sister publication EE Times .