Google's New Self-Driving Car Is Built to Be Safe, Not Cool

It's less 'Blade Runner,' more Little Tikes — which is of course the whole point.

Victoria Turk

Victoria Turk

Image: Google

Last night, Google unveiled their latest self-driving car prototype: a little two-seater vehicle that’s lost the steering wheel and pedals but gained a smiley face. “Isn’t that cute?” says one of the volunteer passengers in the promo video. Well, quite.

It’s clear with this latest step—the first time Google’s actually had a go at designing a full vehicle—that the company is focusing on one thing above all else: Making their autonomous cars look safe, even if that means sacrificing any remnant of cool. Because let’s face it, this doesn’t exactly look like the vehicle of the future. It’s less Blade Runner, more Little Tikes (even down to the lack of pedals!). 

Of course, that’s the whole point. This car isn’t built for cool points; it’s designed to push the idea that self-driving cars are totally safe and not scary at all. Google says it itself in a blog post detailing the car prototype. “It was inspiring to start with a blank sheet of paper and ask, ‘What should be different about this kind of vehicle?’ We started with the most important thing: safety,” they wrote.

According to the Associated Press, Google co-founder Sergey Brin compared riding the bubble car to using a chairlift when he announced it at a California tech conference on Tuesday evening.  Point being, it’s not exactly a Ferrari, and it’s not meant to be.

The first prototypes can only go up to 25 miles per hour and are equipped with little more than a simple start/stop button interface and a screen showing the route. John Markoff at the New York Times took one for a test drive (or perhaps more accurately a test ride) and explained that you summon the car with a smartphone app and then just press “go.” He described it as “a cross between riding in my office elevator … and memories of riding in the Disneyland Tomorrowland people mover as a child.”

The most important part of the car is obviously the network of sensors that stop it crashing into people. The new car looks like it has a similar top-mounted sensor to the one we’re used to seeing on Google’s Toyota and Lexus fleet, and the company wrote that the sensors remove blind spots and can detect objects more than two football fields away in all directions, “which is especially helpful on busy streets with lots of intersections.”

That’s perhaps a hint at what Google ultimately plans for this kind of autonomous vehicle. Brin told the Times that he thought “the right model for most of the world will be not through vehicle ownership,” which brings to mind schemes like the autonomous pods planned for the city of Milton Keynes in the UK. Or is this another step closer to robotaxis?

Google said it will build 100 of the vehicles for testing and hopes to launch a pilot in California in a couple of years. While the prototype doesn't have conventional controls, the test cars will have some kind of manual override, because while the company insists they’re not needed, regulators currently disagree: You need to have human controls to comply with California law. 

A lot could change on both the product and regulation front before autonomous cars make their way into the mainstream, and it still seems likely Google will team up with partners from the automotive industry to implement whatever system they ultimately have in mind.

I'm holding out for go-faster stripes and scissor doors. Along with my jetpack.