Gentlemen, start your engines

Google Inc. has unveiled a car that just might take the fun out of driving for some people.

That’s because you wouldn’t drive it.

It’s a driverless, electric vehicle that would pick you up after you beckoned for it via your phone, and take you to where you’re going.

The Internet giant has been working on a self-driving car for years, and late yesterday took the wraps off.

Google is producing 100 of the prototype vehicles, and we’ll see where things go from there.

It’s a cute little thing, in the way ugly babies are cute. No muscle car, this. (And once you see a picture of it, it’s fun to imagine how Steve McQueen might have looked in one of these things racing through San Francisco in Bullitt.)

“Ever since we started the Google self-driving car project, we’ve been working toward the goal of vehicles that could shoulder the entire burden of driving,” said Chris Urmson, who’s heading up the effort.

“You can take a trip downtown at lunchtime without a 20-minute buffer to find parking. Seniors can keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys. And drunk and distracted driving? History.”

There’s nothing in this thing in terms of regular gear. No steering wheel, no gas or brake pedals.

“Our software and sensors do all the work,” said Mr. Urmson.

“The vehicles will be very basic – we want to learn from them and adapt them as quickly as possible – but they will take you where you want to go at the push of a button,” he added on the company’s blog.

“And that’s an important step toward improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.”

Think, for example, of calling a driverless taxi. Or think Future Shock on a grand scale, with a self-driving bus.

While it might take the fun out of driving, just think of the possibilities, particularly if at the same time you’re wearing Google Glass and a smartwatch: You could catch up on the news, do your makeup (without the jerk behind you honking at you), text (without being pulled over by the police), or nap on the way to work.

According to Google, the vehicles are equipped with sensors that do away with blind spots and can sense objects within a space of two football fields in every direction.

For now, they won’t go faster than 25 miles an hour. So no fast-speed car chases here.

“On the inside, we’ve designed for learning, not luxury, so we’re light on creature comforts, but we’ll have two seats (with seatbelts), a space for passengers’ belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen that shows the route – and that’s about it,” said Mr. Urmson.

(I want to know if there’s a cup holder.)

Safety drivers will begin testing the vehicles, with manual controls, in the summer, in a program Google hopes will lead to a pilot project in California over the next two years.

“We took a look from the ground up as to what it would be like if we had self-driving cars in the world,” co-founder Sergey Brin reportedly told a conference yesterday.

“We’ve worked with partners in the Detroit area, Germany and California.”

According to The New York Times, a former General Motors Co. research and development executive, Lawrence Burns, who’s now a consultant at Google, headed up a study on Manhattan cabs.

What that study found was that some 13,000 cabs averaged almost 500,000 trips daily with speeds in the range of 10 miles an hour, according to the news organization.

Average wait time was five minutes.

The bottom line, according to the Times, was that with a wait time just shy of a minute, and on the basis of a 15-per-cent profit, a fleet of robotic taxis would cost just 50 cents a mile, compared to about $4 now.

(Please note: This is one of the stories Report on Business is following Wednesday, May 28, 2014. Click here for other stories being followed by Report on Business.)

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, May. 28 2014, 7:09 AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, May. 28 2014, 9:45 AM EDT