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Google to launch fleet of two-seater self-driving cars

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Honda. Toyota. Google?

One of the world’s largest technology companies is getting into the car business -- the self-driving car business. The search giant announced on its blog Tuesday that it plans to build about 100 of its own two-seat autonomous cars.

“Ever since we started the Google self-driving car project, we’ve been working toward the goal of vehicles that can shoulder the entire burden of driving,” the company wrote. “They will take you where you want to go at the push of a button. And that's an important step toward improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.”

Infographic: Details on Google's new car

The cars were built with safety in mind and designed to drive without any human intervention, Google said. They have sensors that eliminate blind spots and look in every direction for more than 200 yards. The top speed of the first vehicles will be limited to 25 mph.

The gumdrop-shaped cars are simplicity personified. There are a pair of seats with seatbelts, space for your belongings, buttons for start and stop, and a screen showing where the car is going. That’s it; no steering wheel, no gas or brake pedal.

It’s too early for Google to start selling the unnamed cars. Later this summer it will have “safety drivers” test early versions of the cars with manual controls. If the program goes smoothly, Google hopes to launch a pilot program in California in the next couple of years.

“We’re going to learn a lot from this experience, and if the technology develops as we hope, we’ll work with partners to bring this technology into the world safely,” Google said on its blog.

In addition to potential partnerships with automakers, Google’s self-driving cars could spark micro-loan programs in cities similar to bike-share programs. Users could subscribe for a monthly fee, and take the cars when they needed them for short trips around town.

“Recently we've seen an explosion in connected car technology and a growing interest in autonomous driving,” said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at kbb.com. “Google's intention to begin building cars is the next logical step in the evolution of personal transportation.”

That evolution may happen quicker than people think. Brands like GM, Ford, Nissan, Toyota, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz are already testing self-driving technology, and many high-end luxury cars already come with elementary radar systems that allow automatic cruise control, autonomous braking, and lane-keeping assistance.

Many automakers predict they will have fully autonomous cars on the road by 2020. By 2025, as many as 230,000 of these self-drivers could be sold each year around the world. That number could swell to 11.8 million a decade later, according to a study released earlier this year by IHS Automotive.

As self-driving cars become more common, accident rates are expected to plunge to near zero, since a vast majority of today’s wrecks are caused by human error, the study predicted.

Yet two key obstacles stand in the way of autonomous cars: cost and legislation.

Truly autonomous cars could cost between $7,000 and $10,000 more than their manual counterparts when they hit the market in 2020, and will likely only be available as luxury models to begin with.

And U.S. laws have a lot of catching up to do. Currently only four states allow autonomous vehicles on public roads: California, Nevada, Michigan, and Florida. Those that do require that a licensed, sober driver be in the driver’s seat at all times ready and willing to assume control of the vehicle.

Google’s own car hopes to help the laws catch up to the technology.

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

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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