LOS ANGELES: Google plans to build and launch onto city streets a small fleet of subcompact cars that could operate without a person at the wheel.
Actually, the cars wouldn’t even have a wheel. Or gas and brake pedals. The company says the vehicles will use sensors and computing power, with no human needed.
Google Inc. hopes that by this time next year, 100 of the two-seaters will be on public roads, following extensive testing. The cars would not be for sale and instead would be provided to select operators for further tweaking and have limitations such as a 25 mph top speed.
The announcement presents a challenge to automakers that have been more cautious about introducing fully automated driving and to government regulators who are scrambling to accommodate self-driving cars on public roads. Other companies are working on the technology but none as large as Google has said it intends to put such cars in the hands of the public so soon.
To date, Google has driven hundreds of thousands of miles on public roads and freeways in Lexus SUVs and Toyota Priuses outfitted with special sensors and cameras. But with a “safety driver” in the front seat, those vehicles were not truly self-driving.
Instead of the standard controls, the prototypes would have buttons to begin and end the drive. Passengers would set a destination. The car would then make turns and react to other vehicles and pedestrians based on computer programs that predict what others might do, and data from sensors including radar and cameras that read in real time what other objects are actually doing.
The route might be set by typing a destination into a map or using spoken commands, Chris Urmson, the leader of Google’s self-driving car team, told reporters Wednesday.
The car will be powered by electricity and could go about 100 miles before charging. Its shape suggests a rounded-out Volkswagen Beetle — something that might move people around a corporate campus or congested downtown — with headlights and sensors arrayed to resemble a friendly face.
Mark Reuss, global product development chief of General Motors Co., poked fun at the car’s look but acknowledged Google could become a force in the marketplace.
“I could wear it as a hat,” Reuss joked at an automotive technology forum in Detroit. “It’s cool. It’s like advanced. Like an old VW.”
Reuss added, though, that Google could become a real competitor to GM, which is pursuing driverless technology.
“If they set their mind to it, I have no doubt that’s a very serious competitive threat,” he said.
Several companies have said they expect by 2020 to market vehicles that can drive themselves under certain conditions.