Google’s self-driving cars are hitting the road.
The tech giant said Friday it plans to start testing its small, egg-like prototypes on the streets of the company’s hometown of Mountain View, California.
The announcement comes three days after Google admitted that its vehicles -- mostly Lexus 450h SUVs equipped with the cameras and technology needed to drive themselves -- were involved in 11 minor collisions over the past six years. All of them were the fault of human drivers, Google said.
Still, the prototypes Google plans to road test this summer won’t go faster than 25 miles per hour. For safety and legal purposes, a driver will be present during each test.
“During this next phase of our project, we’ll have safety drivers aboard with a removable steering wheel, accelerator pedal, and brake pedal that allow them to take over driving if needed,” Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s self-driving car project, wrote in a blog post. “We’re looking forward to learning how the community perceives and interacts with the vehicles.”
Self-driving technology has made significant leaps in the past year.
Electric automaker Tesla Motors promised to roll out a limited autonomous feature later this year that would allow the company’s flagship Model S sedan to drive itself on highways. On private property, the vehicle could park itself and even drive itself to its owner when summoned through an app.
Mercedes-Benz has offered up impressive new prototypes, too. The luxury carmaker unveiled a sleek, self-driving concept car last September at the Consumer Electronics Show. In March, it began test-driving it on the streets on San Francisco.
But automakers must clear some major obstacles before self-driving vehicles can become consumer products.
Insurers, whose policies must be approved state regulators, are scrambling to write new plans for Tesla’s limited autonomous feature.
Moreover, technology has not yet solved the ethical quandary that surrounds letting a vehicle drive itself. When an accident becomes unavoidable -- say, a child runs out into the street -- the computer cannot yet make a value judgment about whether to veer off the road, potentially killing its passenger, or hit the kid.
"People are philosophizing about it," Ron Medford, the director of safety on Google's self-driving car project, told The Associated Press in November, "but the question about real-world capability and real-world events that can affect us, we really haven't studied that issue."
Google did not respond to requests for comment about whether such research is underway.
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