Google begins production of driverless car fleet (video)

Two-seater prototypes have no steering wheel or pedals, only stop and go buttons

INTERNET GIANT Google is turning car maker as it prepares to manufacture 100 self-driving vehicles in its continuing development of autonomous technology.

Over the past four years the company has created around 10 self-drive test cars based on Toyota Prius and Lexus RX 450h hybrids. Now Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, has announced that the company will design and build its own fleet of 100 autonomous cars.

Google’s new driverless car will be smaller than previous test vehicles. It will have only two seats and its wheels will be pushed into each corner, much like a Toyota iQ or Smart Fortwo. It has been given a “friendly” face, designed to make it seem non-threatening and help people accept self-driving technology.

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With pedestrian safety in mind, its pure-electric drivertrain is designed to allow a maximum speed of only 25mph. The front of the car is made of a soft foam-like material, while a more flexible windscreen may also help reduce injuries in the event of a collision.

In a departure from the company’s previous thinking on autonomous cars, which allowed passengers to take control of the vehicle at any time, the new Google driverless car has no steering wheel, gear lever or pedals. Previous testing revealed that passengers, who could be reading or daydreaming while in the cars, could be startled into intervention.

“We saw stuff that made us a little nervous,” said Christopher Urmson, a former Carnegie Mellon University roboticist who directs Google’s self-driving car project.

Although initially the new car will be retro-fitted with extra controls to allow human intervention, in the future it will have only two controls: a start button and a red “e-stop” button for panic stops.

The car would be summoned with a smartphone app to pick up a passenger and deliver them to a selected destination automatically.

The new vehicle uses the same laser radar system found on the test cars. It can generate a 360-degree 3D picture of the surrounding environment and combines this with GPS information and high-resolution street maps. Google claims the car’s software can detect hundreds of distinct objects simultaneously – pedestrians, buses, a stop sign held up by crossing guard, or a cyclist making gestures that indicate a possible turn – and can predict scenarios such as a child running into the road to chase after an errant ball.

Google’s 100 test vehicles will be produced in Detroit and are expected to be on the road “within the year”.