Google ultimately may try supplying its software and maps to the mainstream auto industry, but car-sharing could offer the company and its technology a more direct route to the marketplace.
“All along, we’ve all been speculating about Google,” said consultant Richard Bishop, who led the U.S. Department of Transportation’s vehicle automation program in the 1990s. “We’ve known they’re building very capable technology, but the question has been: What are they going to do with it? Here’s a concrete use case — the autonomous taxi — that has significant potential, whether Google is the one who does it or not.”
To prepare its autonomous cars to handle all sorts of urban driving scenarios, Google has commissioned a fleet of about 100 custom-built prototypes, which Urmson said will appear on California’s public roads by year end.
Though current testing regulations require that a driver sit behind the wheel, Google’s vision — as depicted in its publicity materials — is for the cars eventually to have no steering wheel or pedals.
Automakers such as Daimler AG and Volvo also are aggressively pursuing autonomous vehicles to make cars safer, improve mobility for blind and elderly people and make traffic jams and commutes less tiresome. However, none of those automakers envisions eliminating the role of the driver altogether.
Google does. It says it isn’t confident enough about the handoff of controls to maintain a role for the driver in a self-driving car. Human factors research suggests that once people gave up control of a vehicle, they would be too trusting, Urmson said, and wouldn’t be prepared to retake the controls quickly when they were needed. Rather than taking a shot at “debugging the human,” Google decided to go for a fully autonomous car, makes sense.