Google New York

Rolling Out in the East? Google Finally Talks About the Future of Driverless Cars

California will be the testing ground for the first batch, while other states catch up with legislation.
Awwww! (Photo via Google)

Awwww! (Photo via Google)

Although legislation in most of the 50 states isn’t equipped to regulate robotic self-driven cars, Google is rolling forward with plans to unleash a fleet of driverless cars that can be summoned via smartphone app.

Google finally broke its relative silence on its self-driving car pilot program to reporters over the phone this morning. It was the first time the tech giant answered questions from the press about the modern-day Knight Rider-mobiles.

So far, Google is only going to roll out the new fleet in their hometown of Mountain View, Calif., but Google wants to expand to other cities once the technology is proven to be safe. Though the cars are currently limited to 25 miles per hour, Google pointed out this morning during a press conference that Mayor Bill de Blasio is pushing to lower the NYC speed limit to 25 miles per hour anyway.

“There’s only a few states that have a regulatory framework at all, or who have attempted to regulate this area,” Ron Medford, Director of Safety for the Self-Driving Car at Google, said this morning.

New York has legislation in the works that would permit testing and operating “autonomous vehicles,” but we might not know if it passes until February of 2015, at the earliest. In the meantime, California will be rolling the digitally-possessed buggies around California, keeping their eyes on the East.

Another barrier to adoption is the way Google scans the roads — in order for Google’s new cars to travel safely, the roads need to be processed in a much more thorough way than the way they scan for Street View and Google Maps.

But they’ve already done those scans in California, where Google’s self-driving cars have been rolling around for years, racking up thousands of miles without getting a single ticket. In fact, they’ve never even been pulled over. But that doesn’t mean that the cars are simply ready for the road — or, given the way the law works, that the roads are ready for these cars.

These cars aren’t like the retrofitted Lexuses Google has been using to road test their self-driving software. These are original, Google-built cars that have no steering wheel, gas pedal, brake pedal, or any other way to tell the car what to do other than buttons for “stop” and “go.” The cars are meant to be summoned via a smartphone app — you punch in a destination, and off you go.

The cars look like they were designed with little faces for optimal cuteness, likely so that people will look on them with adoration instead of abject horror at the thought of a machine takeover. But New York City cab drivers might not find them so adorable should they make their way East in the near future.

Cabbies have been fighting for their fares in with independent drivers using apps like Uber and Gett — but soon they all might have to contend with cars that don’t have drivers at all. Google debuted an impending fleet of driverless cars last night, and they clearly have their eyes set on cities across the country once the first few pilot programs are complete.

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

The point about seniors rings especially true for anybody unable to drive, including the blind, injured, or disabled — the reporter this morning from the AARP had some of the best questions by far.

You can also imagine an app like Uber, only instead of ordering a driver, the car comes on its own to pick you up without needing to deal with, pay, or tip a real human. This is right in line with what Google has said repeatedly about how self-driving cars could eliminate the need for car ownership.

But before we get our hopes up, let’s keep in mind that Google has rolled out a number of projects before they’re fully ready for market — Google Glass is still in beta for the foreseeable future, and Google+ has been updated so much that it’s practically a new site every time you visit.

These driverless cars could be another case of Amazon Prime delivery drones — a colorful vision of the future far too long before it’s ready.

Follow Jack Smith IV on Twitter or via RSS. jsmith@observer.com