Although the Google self-driving car prototype revealed Tuesday night may look cute on the outside and strange on the inside, it signals that Google will soon face tough questions about ownership, insurance, and what it means to try to take the wheel of the urban mobility revolution away from Big Auto.
To be sure, the self-driving car technology is far from road ready. By Google's own admission, it sucks in inclement weather, it can't drive anywhere without a pre-made map, and to keep it on the right side of the law, it's only allowed on the streets with two human operators ready to take over.
But they've already racked up more than 700,000 miles in nearly two dozen Toyota and Lexus vehicles that they've bolted their autonomous technology to, and the cars can successfully navigate freeways as well as the busy downtown suburban streets of Google's hometown in Mountain View, Calif.
Little car, big plans
From the outside, the nameless, prototype autonomous car looks like a cross between a golf cart and a Smart Car, or like one of the newer Fiats but with its nose cut off. It has two doors, two seats, and it's about the size of a Smart ForTwo. The detailing and placement of the headlights and grille make the front look like a face with big child-sized eyes and a slight smile.
The inside is futuristic, and that doesn't mean 17 cup holders. It lacks a steering wheel and column, and doesn't have a brake pedal or an accelerator. Classified officially by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as a Low-Speed Vehicle, a designation notable for its restricted top speed of 25 miles per hour, a regulation-approved glass windshield, the presence of side and rear-view mirrors, and a parking brake, the $150,000 electric Google robo-car can only go around 100 miles before needing a recharge.
Combine all that with the reliance of Google's self-driving technology on pre-built Lidar-generated maps overlaid by a real-time map built with a combination of cameras, sensors, and Lidar, and you might be wondering just what exactly Google is trying to do.
The prototype car came about because as Google moved the technology testing to city streets a year ago, Google self-driving car project director Chris Urmson and his team "began to realize that glomming sensors onto our vehicles was not the right solution," he said.
"There was an opportunity to re-envision what our vehicle should be," he said. "What does it mean to not have to press the gas or brake, to have a more humane experience?"
Changing the future of urban transportation
The answer is nothing short of revolutionizing urban mobility, and it's going to happen much faster than you think, says Alain Bertaud, senior research scholar at the New York University Urbanization Project.
"I didn't expect this to be so early. I am really looking forward to see the deployment," he said. "Within 10 years, urban transport will be transformed, and the productivity of large cities will improve."
Bertaud predicts that the future of urban mobility will depend on autonomous vehicles that people use not only for the so-called "first-last mile," to connect people to public transportation systems when they live close to stops and stations, but not close enough, but also for when public transportation systems take too long to go relatively short distances.
"Assume that you have a station on your rail every kilometer, you have too many stops," he said. Bertaud says that he lives right next to a bus stop that would take him directly to where he needs to go in New York City three times a week, but he drives because, "it stops 72 times."
"The speed restriction [of 25 mph] falls into this classification of the Neighborhood Electric Vehicle," a sub-classification of the Low-Speed Vehicle that operates in mixed-used environments, said Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. "These are cars that are uniquely different from a standard vehicle, and may be considered as an alternative to vehicle ownership."
So right from the start, Google is targeting its prototype car not just at other cars, but at urban transportation habits. Shaheen noted that the Google car looks like it was driven right off the lot of shared-use car testing concepts that Honda and Toyota were working on in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Google and independent researchers like Shaheen and Bertaud speculate that the cars could give rise to car-sharing programs, less traffic, and happier city denizens.
But there are many more miles to go before the car is ready, let alone programs developed to get people to use them.
"As a researcher, what I'd like to see is a driving clinic to see how people of different socio-economic status react to the vehicle," said Shaheen.
Urmson said he's been thinking about this question, too.
"I have a personal vision how it might go that it might be shared by communities or families, but we won't understand that until we see how it [development] goes."
Riding with the law
In addition to the technological and socioeconomic hurdles the Google car tech faces, it must also win over regulators in each of the 50 states. In California, the stereotypical home of American car culture where drive-ins were born more than a half a century ago, regulators signed off last week on rules governing how to test self-driving cars.
These include conditions that companies testing the autonomous automobile tech were not always happy about, said Bernard Soriano, deputy director at the California Department of Motor Vehicles, even though those same companies are being consulted on the rules that will guide them.
"In the testing regulations, one of the things that we have stipulated is that a human being is in the vehicle while it's being tested on the roadways. It must be some kind of designee of the company," and not just any passenger, Soriano said.
Google fits the bill with its current driverless car operator teams. But it also means that Google's prototype, which was shown on Tuesday without steering or pedals, actually will have them once it's unleashed on the streets of Mountain View -- sometime after the rules go into effect on September 16.
When regulations governing how self-driving cars can operate after testing in California are approved "by the end of this calendar year," Soriano said, and the subsequent 120 day grace period passes, Google can build and deploy self-driving cars without steering wheels or pedals however it chooses. It's the testing that requires the classic interior controls.
"We're looking to be testing these vehicles [the prototype with a steering wheel and pedals] on private closed courses this summer, and public roads by the end of the year," said Google's Urmson.
Given the regulatory timeline, the prototype cars without the steering wheel and pedals might see some kind of deployment as early as April 2015, but Urmson said that people should temper their expectations.
"It won't happen until we're confident about putting them on the road without a driver on board," Urmson said.
Google faces another regulatory hurdle: insurance. The 100 cars it plans on building and testing in Mountain View might be assembled by Roush Enterprises, a boutique auto assembly firm near Detroit, but the Golden State considers Google the manufacturer, Soriano said. So if it gets into a crash, or as Google would like you to believe is more likely, somebody else crashes into it, who's responsible? And if the car is as tiny as the prototype, will you care since you could be dead?
"Those questions are still unanswered," Soriano said. Also unanswered, but something that Google likely has an opinion on: Who is the legal operator of the vehicle, if Google tech is the pilot?
"Right now, Google is saying that there isn't a person who's operating the vehicle," Soriano said, "It's the software."
"What does it mean to not have to press the gas or brake, to have a more humane experience?" -- Chris Urmson, director, Google Self-Driving Car Project
Laws governing vehicular ownership and responsibility have always been based on the presumption of human operators. For the first time in history, that's changing, but the tactics being used in determining how that's happening aren't.
"What manufacturers need to do is to ensure to us, and we ensure the public, that these vehicles are safe," he said. "Some manufacturers have told us that [the way] to make sure that these vehicles are safe is to self-certify... We have said that there should be a third party to certify to," some kind of regulatory body, "but some manufacturers have pushed back."
Driving down the less-traveled road
Tension hasn't risen only between manufacturers like Google and regulators, but between the car makers and the driving public, too. People are concerned about a century of developed car habits shifting dramatically in under a decade.
Driving aficionados like CNET's Tim Stevens and Danny Sullivan take great umbrage at Google's plans, accusing them of trying to take a "California" approach to self-driving car development and being on an overly ambitious timeline.
Despite her enthusiasm for the rise of the robo-car, Shaheen said that she didn't expect people to stop driving. "There's always going to be a market for people who want to drive vehicles and want to own vehicles," she said. "As our society changes and the role of the city becomes increasingly important to society, the need for parking alone is going to limit one's ability to own a vehicle."
Shaheen said that the design of the prototype makes it look like a car alternative to cars. "This car looks like an alternative to necessarily owning a vehicle," she said. "I don't know if this is the car that people would go out and buy."
But Bertaud said that if you live in a city with more than 1 million people, you and the big car makers would be right to be concerned about your ability to own a car in the not-too-distant future.
"I think this thing is happening much faster than we thought. I think for very large cities, the current transport system is completely inadequate. The possibility of driverless car as filling the gap here will completely change the way that transport will be done in large cities," he said.
Thus far, there have been two major development tracks for self-driving cars. There's the more incremental approach, slowly adding automation. Volvo's plan for Gothenburg, Sweden, heavily reliant on sensors, is like this.
"The policy at Google is to completely jump to the self-driving car," said Bertaud, who was surprised that the prototype car was announced only a few weeks after Google showcased the autonomous technology at a press event.
"It shows a lot of self-confidence," he said, and it could upset potential partners. "They are really burning their bridges, there's no way back."