For the past few days, a strange vehicle has been spotted in the streets of Mountain View, right in the heart of Silicon Valley. With its small size, rounded shapes and natural looks, it seems straight out of a cartoon. It also has another particularity: it is autonomous. It is the first prototype of a driverless car entirely designed by Google.
The company has already been conducting experiments in California and Nevada for five years. However, until now, it had only used commercial models, Toyota and then Lexus. These cars are equipped with a sophisticated radar and camera system. This makes it possible to map the environment and detect cars, pedestrians, red lights, white lines…
The new “Google car” prototype was developed in-house. About twenty units were produced by a small equipment manufacturer in Detroit, the American automobile fiefdom. Initially, these cars were not to include a steering wheel or pedals. Google, however, had to revise its plans to comply with California regulations, which require the presence of a driver who can regain control.
Unveiled in May 2014, the prototype – which officially has no name – has already accumulated the kilometers of tests on private tracks. The second phase of testing is now taking place on public roads near the search engine’s headquarters, at a maximum speed of 40 km/h. These tests should improve performance in the city, a sophisticated environment for driverless cars.
Nestled in Google X, the in-house laboratory that imagines the most futuristic concepts, the project is still far from successful. Its director, Chris Urmson, talks about a possible commercial launch within five years. Many challenges remain to be resolved, he explains. For example, “where should the car stop when its destination is inaccessible because of work? »
Since their first laps, Google cars have driven about 1.5 million kilometers independently. Without a single accident, the company explained last year. At the beginning of May, however, it had to admit that eleven skirmishes had taken place since the start of the tests. “The unmanned vehicle was never the cause of the accident,” Urmson says.
ANOTHER TEN YEARS OF WAITING?
Google is not the only company interested in vehicles without drivers. On Tuesday, June 23, Ford formalized its ambitions in the field. “Many manufacturers are working on driverless cars,” says Thilo Koslowski of Gartner. However, development will take place in stages. The analyst estimates that it will be another ten years before a fully autonomous model becomes widely available.
In the meantime, an increasing number of vehicles will drive themselves under certain conditions. For example, when parking or on the highway, where the data to be analyzed is less complicated than in the city. Tesla, the American manufacturer of electric cars, even promises the arrival of an autopilot function this year. General Motors plans a semi-autonomous model for 2017.
“By 2035, unmanned cars will represent 9% of the world fleet. Moreover, almost 100% by 2050,” predicts Egil Juliussen of IHS Automotive. Google could become a major player in the sector. “The software aspect will be an essential element to ensure the reliability of the vehicles,” continues the analyst. High-tech companies have expertise in this area that car manufacturers do not have.