Google's new self-driving car puts cyclist safety first

A foam bumper and flexible windshield are Google's new prototype driverless car's flagship safety features

by Elliot Johnston   May 28, 2014  

Google's self-driving car prototype (image via Google Blog)

No steering wheel, no pedals and no driver. Google’s newly revealed, own-build, self-driving car prototype is looking to bring a new era of road safety to the world’s roads, but do automated cars have you worried?

Google say that your worries are unfounded. Despite doubt from some road users and researchers, Google have made it their mission to show a sceptical public that their automated automobiles are more proficient and safer than most human drivers.

The Californian company released the footage below, of their control-lite self-driving car prototype, at a conference in their home state on Tuesday.

The car has a footprint not dissimilar to a standard small city car and features a front end which not only gives the car an amicable face-like appearance, but also includes a number of safety features targeting vulnerable road users such as cyclists.

If the car’s friendly facade isn’t enough to put worried cyclists at ease, Google have also recently announcement that their current, adapted fleet of self driving cars have clocked 700,000 autonomous miles on public roads in America.

To further allay the fears of sceptics, Google released footage in April, which you can watch here, that showed how well their self-driving cars manage interactions with unusual road layouts as well as cyclists themselves.

On top of their evidence that cyclists may well be safer at the mercy of mindless robot cars than vehicles controlled by current road users, Google has taken a number of other measures in their new prototype to safeguard cyclists and other road users from their robotic vehicles.

Google's prototype vehicles will wear a foam bumper and flexible windshield that Google hope will reduce the impact that Google's vehicles will have on any unwitting pedestrians and cyclists that may come into contact with their vehicle's face-like front ends.

The speed of the prototype car will also be kept down for safety’s sake. Google told the BBC that the car, which will only seat two people and is propelled via the environmentally friendly wonders of electricity, will be limited to 25 mph.

The search giant also said that they will initially build 100 prototypes of their self-driving car, but plan to bring 200 of the cars to Detroit for extensive city-driving tests.

Google have reassured sceptics that early iterations of the vehicle will feature plug-in controls so the test driver can take control should something go wrong.

Director of the company’s self-driving project, Chris Urmson, highlighted in the official Google blog that safety was at the top of the company’s agenda.

He wrote: “We started with the most important thing: safety. [The cars] have sensors that remove blind spots, and they can detect objects out to a distance of more than two football fields in all directions, which is especially helpful on busy streets with lots of intersections.

“We’ve designed for learning, not luxury, so we’re light on creature comforts, but [there will be] space for passengers’ belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen that shows the route—and that’s about it.”

These prototype cars will use the same radar and laser technology to find their way around the world’s roads that Google’s current fleet of cars, which are responsible for the 700,000 automated miles, do.

Mr. Urmson also spoke to the BBC about his excitement for the vehicle, saying that these prototypes will really push the capabilities of self driving technology and allow researchers to understand its limitations.

He went on to say that the cars would “improve people’s lives by transforming mobility” and that he hoped to see these vehicles on the road within the year.

Another member of the self-driving car team at Google, Ron Medford, former deputy director of the US NAtional Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told the BBC that he thinks self driving cars have “the potential to be the most important safety technology that the auto industry has ever seen.”

A public opinion survey in 2012, carried out by road safety charity IAM, found that two thirds of motorists were unsure about the merits of driverless vehicles.

Will Google’s extensive efforts to highlight the technology’s safety over the last two years begin to sway that opinion?

21 user comments

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Note, Google's 700,000 miles were done on a specific set of roads with quiet traffic and were 3d digitized extensively. They say they will trial the cars on busy roads later.

And airplane autopilot is not the same, planes don't drive themselves along roads with multiple hazard types.

And whilst the cars may get HD image feeds and LIDAR etc, their AI struggles to recognise the simplest of things on those images.

The cars driving at 25mph speaks volumes about Google's confidence in them - and it shows that split second reaction time means nothing if you don't know everything that you need to react to.

Having said that, I do hope that the technology is safer and continues to get progressively safer. I like the fact that the cars are electric.

posted by kie7077 [452 posts]
28th May 2014 - 17:16

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They're going to need to go faster than 25mph in London, to keep away from all the taxi drivers trying to set fire to them.

posted by bikebot [497 posts]
28th May 2014 - 17:43

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For a lot of people cars are about status and power, not transport. These vehicles won't satisfy that basic requirement. If you can't bully someone with your car, what's the point?

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posted by nowasps [246 posts]
28th May 2014 - 17:51

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nowasps wrote:
For a lot of people cars are about status and power, not transport. These vehicles won't satisfy that basic requirement. If you can't bully someone with your car, what's the point?

Something to be said for banning anyone who refuses to use one of these on those grounds alone.

A car is transport, if you see it as a penis extension you should be banned from driving.

edit, If you do want to drive fast, get a track day car or similar and get your jollies away from public roads.

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posted by mrmo [1073 posts]
28th May 2014 - 17:58

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Cyclist friendly features are foam bumpers and flexible windscreens? WTF? How about they don't bloody hit us in the first place!

It seems to me that Walt and Linda would be far better served by getting on a bike themselves - I guess these cars have a place but as 50% of journeys are less than 7 miles a significant number of the prospective passengers could just get on a bloody bike.

JaseCD

posted by jasecd [144 posts]
28th May 2014 - 20:37

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why don't we just limit normal cars driven by people to 25 mph, make them look like tellytubbies and cover them in foam.

It's hard to look macho when you're sat inside a child's toy so all the fuckwits will just stay quiet and get themselves to work and back. Furthermore, if the vehicles are restricted to 25mph, those of us with a fair turn of pace in our legs will be able to slipstream them and maybe give them a run for their money on the flat.

posted by samuri [12 posts]
28th May 2014 - 20:57

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I think it's a lot safer taking the steering wheel off some of the morons you encounter. But what an ugly little bugger, I'd fall off laughing if I came across one for real.

Endorphines going up and adrenaline going down, who needs drugs?

posted by banzicyclist2 [208 posts]
28th May 2014 - 21:38

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I ride my self drive bike (i.e. no handed) at 25 mph often. I'll fit some foam to my handlebars just in case anything goes wrong. All will be fine.

Seriously, as somebody above said. Let's just limit all cars to 25mph on on inner city streets.

The Human Cyclist A blog. Try it, you might like it...

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posted by sm [345 posts]
28th May 2014 - 21:59

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The future is there before us.

The reduction of car speed limits in built up areas is the future.

Cycle lanes are not the way forward, the reduction in speed of cars is the way forward.

Looking forward to the test done in Detroit.

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posted by Rupert [83 posts]
28th May 2014 - 22:14

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I think it's great. Imagine, just sending the car to pick up the kids from school. Imagine having one drink too many and using an app to have your car come and get you.

"I can't believe I ate the whole thing..."

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posted by Cooks [483 posts]
28th May 2014 - 22:32

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Cooks wrote:
I think it's great. Imagine, just sending the car to pick up the kids from school. Imagine having one drink too many and using an app to have your car come and get you.

I love it, from a selfish point of view. Looking at the bigger picture though, the only thing worse than the current massive percentage of cars with only one occupant, is an increasing percentage of cars with no occupants at all...

Last night I would have considered trading a very loud baby for a really nice bike.

posted by notfastenough [3099 posts]
28th May 2014 - 22:48

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.......and then imagine us all not needing to own a car that's not used 90% of the time and just requesting one when required which will pick us up and take us to our destination.......I live in a Victorian area of London and have seen pictures of the roads before they were turned into a car parks. How great to get back to streets that look like that in cities!

posted by whars1 [19 posts]
29th May 2014 - 7:28

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whars1 wrote:
.......and then imagine us all not needing to own a car that's not used 90% of the time and just requesting one when required which will pick us up and take us to our destination.......I live in a Victorian area of London and have seen pictures of the roads before they were turned into a car parks. How great to get back to streets that look like that in cities!

Exactly, the reduction of incentive to actually own your own car could have huge knock on benefits, not the least of which could be a massive reduction in car parking space (both on and off street). Currently carparking is one of largest and fastest growing urban land uses in most cities, and responsible for a large part of the subsidy currently enjoyed by car drivers, since car parking is regarded as a public good and heavily subsidised in most cities.
Also a huge proportion of city traffic (more than 30% according to some studies) is a result of "cruising" i.e., looking for a car park. The need to do this disappears with rented self driving cars, so congestion will be reduced even with single occupant vehicles.

posted by imaca [44 posts]
29th May 2014 - 8:10

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Whilst I echo many of the concerns raised before, they all miss one valuble point.

These cars are not distracted by yesterday's arguement or lack of sleep, make up, mobile phones, sat navs, what's one radio/CD, is it better to a get a latte from McD's or a skinny mocha from Starbucks, will there be any parking when I get to work, the nice motor heading the other way, the good looking person at the bus stop.......

They are mindless and programmed to drive forward until an obstacle is detected and to respond correctly, they don't care if they are late and think they can save a few second by squeezing past.

I for one, do think it's a good step forward and hope it happens in my life time. A stress free journey into work during which I can read artlice on websites about how safe the roads are for all users.

posted by Yorkshie Whippet [290 posts]
29th May 2014 - 8:31

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Google's engineers have admitted there have been a few teething problems:
http://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/love_0_3449.jpg

posted by farrell [1401 posts]
29th May 2014 - 8:45

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A few weeks ago I drove from London up to Glasgow. 400 miles of completely uneventful motorway apart from one sharp stop when traffic backed up in some roadworks. A computer could have simply driven me there and I'd have been reading, sleeping, playing cards with the wife, whatever.

Likewise, almost all of the bad driving we complain about is due to conscious/unconscious actions by the driver - overtaking when there's a queue ahead, passing too close or where there's a traffic island, etc. All of that goes away because the car will be programmed to hold back unless absolutely certain the road is clear and wide enough.

The only thing that worries me is its field of vision at T-junctions - can it see far enough out and around? There is a T-junction near my house where a road joins a long straight downhill section (40mph on a bike). Would it pull out in front of me?

Boardman CX Team '14 | Cannondale CAAD8 '12 (written off, SMIDSY) | Scott Sportster '08

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posted by Gizmo_ [823 posts]
29th May 2014 - 13:10

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I wonder if they'll ever bring in gps speed limiters for normal cars. Maybe the big brother concerns would quash that.

They did have those black boxes tied to payg insurance premiums for a bit.

posted by vbvb [234 posts]
29th May 2014 - 13:11

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A huge advantage (along with all the safety stuff) is that these cars can drive themselves without anyone in them. You don't need to own a car anymore, once you're at your destination, the car goes off on its own to drive someone else to where they want to go. No more need of space for parking, we can free up our streets for people rather than idle metal boxes. Think of it as a cross between a taxi and zipcar. Taxi drivers are going to hate it.

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posted by peej [3 posts]
29th May 2014 - 13:39

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Obesity just got harder to fight.

posted by Alexbb [5 posts]
30th May 2014 - 9:24

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Alexbb wrote:
Obesity just got harder to fight.

Not necessarily, it might be much more pleasant cycling with roads full of autonomous cars, vans and buses - all electric too hopefully.

And just to pre-empt those who say electric vehicles aren't environmentally friendly because of coal power stations - Solar power is about to become cheaper than any other form of power, what better way to top up an electric car.

Autonomous cars could park themselves in huge underground car parks, people could have gardens instead car parks in front of their houses. Or perhaps supermarkets could allow their spare space to be used - how often do you see a full supermarket car park?

And the trucks clearing the the space for huge underground car parks could run over cyclists, no wait - an ideal job for autonomous vehicles.

Maybe we can start making cities beautiful instead of the giant motorway/car parks infested with a forest of ugly road-signs and protective crash barriers and traffic so frightening that only a tiny percentage of the population dare to cycle on the roads.

posted by kie7077 [452 posts]
30th May 2014 - 14:56

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Alexbb wrote:
Obesity just got harder to fight.

Unless you count driving yourself as exercise, I don't really see why it should...?

posted by Chuck [368 posts]
30th May 2014 - 16:23

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