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Google’s Driverless Cars Set for Public Roads

“Our goal is to create something safer than human drivers.”

So says Google (GOOGL) Co-Founder, Sergey Brin.

The solution? Take humans right out of the equation!

That might sound crazy… until you realize that human error is responsible for a whopping 90% to 95% of the 1.2 million deaths on the road across the world each year.

To help reverse that sorry statistic, Google is just one of many companies working on various driverless car designs – i.e., handing the controls over to a computer.

Aside from the safety aspect, there are other benefits, too. Autonomous cars would aid traffic flow and ease congestion, as well as offer new independence to elderly and disabled people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to drive themselves.

Auto industry experts – including Daimler (DDAIF) CEO Dr. Dieter Zetsche, Tesla (TSLA) Chief Elon Musk, and executives at Volvo (VOLVY) – all believe we could see the first commercial driverless cars available by 2020.

And Google just made a significant breakthrough with its ambitions…

“The World’s First Fully Self-Driving Vehicle”

This summer, Google will begin testing its driverless cars on public roads.

It’s the next step of a trial that began in the company’s hometown of Mountain View, California just over a year ago with a heavily modified version of its Lexus RX 450h SUV.

However, while Google will employ the same technology as those cars, it’ll use a new purpose-built prototype – 25 self-driving, two-seater electric car “pods” that Google built from scratch, and which the company calls “the world’s first fully self-driving vehicle.”

And while they resemble smart cars in terms of size and shape, the really smart technology is contained within the cars.

Using sensors, cameras, radar, and lasers, they can drive and navigate roads, brake, and recognize hazards by themselves – no humans required.

However, while Google initially said the cars wouldn’t need a steering wheel or pedals, California law requires them, so a human driver can take control, if necessary. Plus, without air bags, the cars are limited to 25 mph.

To further lessen the chances of serious injury, the cars have flexible windshields and foam front ends. And the trial will take place on “familiar roads” around Mountain View that Google has carefully mapped out.

“Getting these cars out into the public and allowing people to react to them, that’s a huge deal,” says Google’s driverless project leader, Chris Urmson. He wants to see “how the community perceives and interacts with the vehicles and to uncover challenges that are unique to a self-driving vehicle. It’s the necessary step to getting them to drive themselves.”

While the cars have logged many thousands of miles on test tracks that resemble real-life roads, mixing with live traffic is the only way to give the engineers the information they need in order to continue developing the technology.

To Drive or Not to Drive?

Ultimately, Google will build between 50 and 100 of its pods, and broaden the testing to encompass different weather conditions and roads.

But Brin says the company doesn’t want to become an automaker. Rather, it wants to partner with an existing car manufacturer or license the technology to them. (And collect the driving data, of course!)

So far, Google’s driverless cars have logged 1.7 million miles of tests. But are they safe?

In six years of testing, Google cars have experienced just 11 accidents. And the company says none of them were the cars’ fault, with most of them being hit from behind by other drivers.

Urmson says the sensors “can detect objects out to a distance of more than two football fields in all directions.”

But negotiating city streets during rush hour is a far cry from mapped-out, predictable roads in tests. And ultimately, convincing the public is the key here.

A J.D. Power survey of American drivers in 2013 found that only 20% were interested in a driverless car. Yet auto research firm IHS Automotive predicts that 250,000 self-driving cars will be sold every year globally by 2025 – a number that could balloon to 11.8 million by 2035.

But what do you think? Take our survey below…

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Martin Denholm

Martin Denholm

, Managing Editor

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