In May, Google released a teaser image showing a mock-up of the autonomous vehicle it planned to build. Today, the company followed up with an image showing the finished product, which looks just as silly as the original mockup.
Google’s previous autonomous car was a modified Toyota Prius, which used a combination of cameras, sensors, and software to drive itself around California. The modified Prius was very successful, reportedly driving more than 700,000 miles with minimal issues.
Google says the first edition of its self-made self-driving car will feature “temporary manual controls as needed while we continue to test and learn.” When Google introduced its prototype back in May, the company claimed its self-driving cars “won’t have a steering wheel, accelerator pad, or brake pedal…because they don’t need them.” Apparently, it still has yet to reach that point.
Even at a glance, the new self-driving car doesn’t look like anything that Google might introduce to the market. With room for two passengers and little else, it currently looks like a less-convenient Smart car. While the bare-bones prototype should make it useful for testing, what a Google-brand car might look like at a dealership remains to be seen.
The development is an important step forward for Google’s driverless car efforts, which many have deemed impractical of late. Last year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who claimed his company would put a car with autonomous driving capabilities on the road by 2016, wrote off the idea of fully autonomous cars as “a bridge too far.” And a few months ago, a Slate article detailed the mapping processes required for Google’s self-driving cars, which may prove too exhaustive to account for all the nuances of all the roads these cars could reach:
For starters, the Google car was able to do so much more than its predecessors in large part because the company had the resources to do something no other robotic car research project ever could: develop an ingenious but extremely expensive mapping system. These maps contain the exact three-dimensional location of streetlights, stop signs, crosswalks, lane markings, and every other crucial aspect of a roadway.
That might not seem like such a tough job for the company that gave us Google Earth and Google Maps. But the maps necessary for the Google car are an order of magnitude more complicated. In fact, when I first wrote about the car for MIT Technology Review, Google admitted to me that the process it currently uses to make the maps are too inefficient to work in the country as a whole.
It may seem strange that Google would jump to building its own hardware for the project, contradicting its philosophy in other markets, particularly that for mobile devices. But its moonshot ambitions for fully autonomous cars is shrouded in doubt; last year, the Financial Times reported that Google had difficulty finding manufacturing partners that would build vehicles featuring the self-driving capabilities used in its Prius. In that light, maybe Google’s willingness to build its own hardware just to get the technology on the road means that its self-driving car team knows something the rest of the industry doesn’t.