Google's vision of the future not only involves sticking tiny displays in front of your eyeballs, but also cars that can drive themselves around with you safely inside. If that sounds like something that's too far off, Google is trying to show the world otherwise. This week, the company invited press for a test drive inside the current development version of its driverless cars, which can maneuver through both backroads and freeways, sensing what's around them and automatically adjusting. Even with numerous legal and technological hurdles still ahead, Google hopes to eventually make the GPS and sensor-equipped vehicles something available to everyone, in return for what the company says will be safer, more efficient travel for humanity.
These demo vehicles are modified Lexus RX450h hybrids, cars you could actually go out and purchase on your own. However, they've been outfitted with a dazzling array of sensors that help the car determine what's going on around it. That includes stationary and moving objects — be it other cars or pedestrians. Inside the vehicle that means it's business as usual, short of some extra cameras and a big red button that you can hit to disengage the automatic driving and take over. Here's a look at what's going on both outside and inside these vehicles.
- Google's been testing self-driving cars in the Bay Area for several years, and has now logged more than 700,000 miles without any major accidents. The few it's had have been were not the computer's fault, the company says. Google's fleet uses these retrofitted Lexus RX 450h SUVs, but also uses Toyota Priuses.
- Google's driverless cars use LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) technology to see what's around them. The system, which is mounted on top of, and in the very middle of the vehicles, spins constantly to evaluate its surroundings. That does not come cheap, however. As of two years ago, Google said the systems cost $70,000 per car, something Google expects to drop if the cars were to be developed for a mass market.
- Short of the LiDAR sensor up top, Google's self-driving cars look just like any other car. Google has adorned them with "self-driving car" warnings on every side, just in case you're driving next to, or behind them and want to keep your distance.
- This is a demonstration unit of Google's self-driving car parked in Mountain View's Computer History Museum, just down the road from Google's headquarters. It was parked here just last week, as part of an exhibit about self-driving cars, though museum visitors can't actually take it for a test drive.
- Instead of a giant Lexus logo, the front of the car sports a radar unit that can detect what's ahead, as well as how fast it's going. This connects with the main system and tells the car to speed up or slow down.
- Unless you're looking closely, the inside of Google's self-driving cars looks pretty normal, and that's the point. Cameras and sensors are mounted up just above the windshield, but the dashboard is business as usual.
- There is one big difference though: this big, red button. Hit it, and the car basically reverts back to normal, giving you full control again. Think of it as a big power button, but for the computer that's driving you around town.
- A top-mounted camera captures what's in front of the car. It's part of a complex system that also includes an orientation sensor, the aforementioned LiDAR scanner, a position sensor, and an on-board processor that churns through the data to help tell the car what to do.
- As part of the test, Google's been recording video of the inside of its test cars, as well as some audio. This is printed smack dab in the middle of the dashboard. Google's also required passengers to accept a terms of service agreement that limits liability.