Today, Google debuted the Googlecar, a car built from the ground up for short hops done safely. It’s not going to excite anyone’s inner speed demon; it’s got a front end made of foam, it only goes 25 miles per hour, and it looks like somebody bolted a camera turret to the top of a Fiat. But there are a few other reasons it shouldn’t thrill you just yet.
1. It’s Not Street-Legal
There are precisely two states that any sort of self-driving car can legally be on the road, Nevada and California. And in those, since this car lacks any sort of controls for the driver beyond stop and start, it actually isn’t street-legal. Notice that the adorable video we linked to in the introduction never leaves the parking lot.
That doesn’t mean Google isn’t working on it, or that we’re not going to see rapid change on this issue: The benefits for the elderly, disabled, and others are just too obvious. But for now, it can’t be on the road.
2. It’s Expensive Like You Wouldn’t Believe
Google front-loads these cars with all sorts of technology. They’ve got 360-degree cameras, LIDAR systems, tons of sensors, stuff like that. And that stuff costs, to say nothing of building a car from the ground up, or the multiple redundancies Google’s worked into the system to ensure you don’t slam into a Jersey barrier.
Currently, retrofitting a car with these systems will run you a quarter of a million dollars, a price that’s dropped substantially since Google began studying the technology in earnest. The Googlecar is probably a little cheaper, say $100,000, but that doesn’t matter because…
3. Even Google Thinks This Is Five Years Away, Minimum
There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done on this system. For example, that padded front end is because the Googlecar still can’t really compensate for cyclists who don’t use hand signals, or, you know, squirrels. It’s also got real problems with issues such as contrast; if you take the Googlecar out on a snowy day, it’s going to have serious problems detecting the road and getting on the right side of it. And if it loses cellular signal, it will tend to simply pull the side of the road and ask you to find reception instead of following a pre-programmed path.
4. It’ll Be A Product For The Elderly And Disabled, At First
If you work in elder care, you know firsthand the severe mobility and independence challenges faced simply by being elderly. Similarly, Google didn’t bring a blind person to the tests just because they’re a big fan of diversity; they wanted to start getting a sense of how the blind and similarly disabled people would react to the vehicle. Positively, naturally.
So expect this, at least at first, to be marketed towards people who need to drive but may not be able to for various reasons. The actual consumer product for everyone is probably still a decade away… but hey, we can wait a little longer.
Dan Seitz is an obsessive nerd living in New England. He lives in the Boston area with a fiancee, a dog, a cat, and far too many objects with processors.