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Self-driving Google car steers change in auto industry

An undated handout photo shows an early version of Google's experimental electric-powered autonomous vehicle, which would have no steering wheel.


Google Inc. is one of the world's most forward-thinking companies. But if the technology giant is serious about driverless cars, it may want to go back to the low-tech 1950s and adopt the old Greyhound Bus slogan: Go Google and Leave the Driving to Us.

Google plans to test a fleet of about 100 driverless cars – without steering wheels, brake pedals or accelerator pedals so the driving is not only hands-free, it's also feet-free.

"Our software and sensors do all the work," Chris Umson, director of Google's self-driving car project, said on a blog posting. "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."

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The driverless car will not be in the driveways of North America overnight or likely even by the end of the decade – Mr. Umson talks about a pilot program running a couple of years – but the Google announcement is the latest example of how technology is transforming the auto industry.

In this case, as in the case of electric vehicles, the revolution is being led by the high-tech industry itself, not the auto makers, although car companies are also spending billions of dollars developing electric vehicles, fuel-cell powered vehicles and driverless cars.

The two-seaters Google plans to test will have a top speed of about 40 kilometres an hour, which is a perfect speed or perhaps even too fast for the gridlocked freeways of southern California.

"As the old joke has it, people don't so much drive, as park serially and if a machine can do that [and a machine now can], better to dig into your favourite book," said Grant McCracken, an anthropologist who founded the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

"In a sense, the driverless car democratizes the chauffeur and of course, everyone wants that," Mr. McCracken noted.

Well, not quite everyone.

"I guess driving across Iowa it might be fine to sit and let the car drive and read a book," said long-time auto industry analyst Joe Phillippi, "but there are too many insane things going on in our local, regional, metro area that I wouldn't want to hand over my life to a bunch of integrated circuits and software." Mr. Phillippi heads Auto Trends Consulting Inc. of Short Hills, N.J.

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One of the key reasons so much money is being spent on driverless cars is to make the roads safer. Globally, road accidents are the leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 29.

The critical issue that needs to be sorted out, however, is liability in the event of crashes, especially when both driverless cars and those under the control of people are sharing the roads.

"Should there be an accident – and Murphy's Law is still in force – who gets sued, the owner, the car manufacturer, the computer programmer, the GPS maker?" asked Rudi Volti, professor emeritus of sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., who wrote a book called Cars and Culture: The Life Story of a Technology.

What the Google move emphasizes is the decline of the North American car culture that is celebrated in such classic movies as American Graffiti, Bullitt and The Fast and Furious series and finds its ultimate expression in the drive-through lanes of fast-food restaurants.

"What's particularly noticeable now is young people just don't seem to have the same zeal for driving and ownership that my generation did," said Mr. Volti, 69.

Insurance costs, restrictions on licences and the ability to connect digitally appear to be reducing the desire teens and early 20s have to drive.

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But even if driverless cars don't become the norm, the crash avoidance systems and other technologies developed for the vehicles will still find their way into vehicles, industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers said.

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About the Author
Auto and Steel Industry Reporter

Greg Keenan has covered the automotive and steel industries for The Globe and Mail since 1995. He also writes about broader manufacturing trends. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto and of the University of Western Ontario School of Journalism. More


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