The way we travel in the future may be one step closer. Google have been given the go ahead to perform full road tests on their latest generation of robot cars. While the company has already tested various models, notably the modified Lexus SUV, this is the first time that a purpose-built autonomous vehicle will be allowed onto public roads.
The cars will take to the roads around Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, and, to provide additional security, trained drivers will sit in the vehicles to take over the controls in case of any problems or emergencies. In Google’s previous road tests, 4 cars in their fleet of modified Lexus vehicles were involved in an accident, although on each occasion the driver of the other car was at fault.
Google hope to minimise risk by limiting the top speed during their road tests to just 25 mph, while the additional backup of a safety driver should ensure that all the tests are performed with as little danger as possible. Although the simulated environments on Google’s closed tracks are designed to look and feel like real city streets, the new cars have yet to be tested in unpredictable situations such as rush hour traffic or hazardous conditions; it’s this unpredictability that will be the biggest test for Google’s new fleet – and potentially the major barrier to these vehicles becoming widely used. The thousands of miles racked up by the prototype cars in closed conditions are ideal for testing systems and general performance, and Google are confident that their vehicles can also work reliably in normal traffic conditions.
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One of the key questions that will need to be resolved, should these cars ever go into public use, is around liability and responsibility in the event of an accident. A conventional insurance policy has clear guidelines on claims and fault, but an incident involving a driverless, autonomous vehicle is a different matter. There are of course many other implications for the motor trade – will the selling of new and used cars become a thing of the past as we potentially move to a “driverless society”; of course that’s a long way down the line. The road testing when individuals purchase such vehicles is another issue; it’s no longer a case of popping on trade plates and taking the car for a spin!
The tests are likely to be rolled out on an increased scale should these initial tests be successful; in the UK for example, the government has already provided the go ahead for tests of robot cars in 4 towns and cities – Bristol, Milton Keynes, Greenwich and Coventry will all see driverless vehicles on the roads in the near future. We are a long way from a world without human drivers – but the first steps are underway!