Video: New Google driverless car promises safety, reliability, celibacy

To cleanse the palate. No brakes, no steering wheel, no chance of a woman suppressing her laughter when you roll up in this cutesy-poo Pixar-ish oversized kiddie cart. Never, my friends, has the term “beta-testing” seemed so apt.

It’s not really going to look like this, is it?

The two-seat vehicle looks a bit like the ultracompact Fiat 500 or the Mercedes-Benz Smart car if you take out the steering wheel, gas pedal, brake and gear shift. The only things the driver controls is a red “e-stop” button for panic stops and a separate start button.

The car would be summoned with a smartphone application. It would pick up a passenger and automatically drive to a destination selected on a smartphone app without any human intervention.

The current prototype has a range of 100 miles and a top speed of 25 mph, which makes it near-useless on the highway but pretty nifty for short city commutes. The most obvious application? Taxi cabs. Say bye-bye, Uber.

The researchers found that Manhattan’s 13,000 taxis made 470,000 trips a day. Their average speed was 10 to 11 m.p.h., carrying an average of 1.4 passengers per trip with an average wait time of five minutes.

In comparison, the report said, it is possible for a futuristic robot fleet of 9,000 shared automated vehicles hailed by smartphone to match that capacity with a wait time of less than one minute. Assuming a 15 percent profit, the current cost of taxi service would be about $4 per trip mile, while in contrast, it was estimated, a Manhattan-based driverless vehicle fleet would cost about 50 cents per mile.

The front is made of a “foamlike material” which, coupled with the low top speed, should ensure minimal damage if anything darts out in front before the car can detect it and stop. (Interestingly, Google’s first models of the driverless car included a steering wheel so that passengers could take over in case of an emergency. The company abandoned that idea, it told the Times, because asking someone who’s not paying attention to the road to suddenly take control while they shift mentally to emergency-ready levels of alertness produced certain unspecified results that made Google “a little nervous.”) I thought the plan with driverless cars was to have some sort of central computer brain coordinating all of them on the roads; if one computer is steering all the vehicles and calculating for maximum efficiency, it can avoid traffic jams and, more importantly, accidents. Central planning is usually a bad idea when humans try it, but a computer superbrain might improve on the aggregate output of individual autonomous actors. (Brave new world!) Maybe I’ve misunderstood but the prototype below appears to be basically autonomous. It senses things around it, including other driverless cars, but I don’t know that there’s one all-seeing eye that’s directing traffic virtually for the various cars all at once (yet).

And really, how could there be as long as driverless cars are sharing the roads with cars with human drivers? You can’t achieve perfect regimented efficiency when you’ve got unpredictable human beings in the mix mucking things up. That’s the key question: How do you integrate this model of transportation with the traditional one where people steer the vehicle themselves? Lots of people love to drive; others will insist on it simply because they don’t trust a driverless car, either because they fear it’ll be hacked or because they refuse to cede control over a dangerous practice entirely to a machine. Maybe, as time wears on and public confidence in the Google car rises, demand for carefree computerized driving will eventually drive the traditional market out of business. Or maybe, at least in some areas, it’ll be legislated out of existence. I can imagine some cities, in the name of managing traffic, eventually limiting the streets to easily coordinated driverless cars. Can’t wait for the next iteration of the debate over mandates, circa 2030.