(TNS) MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Google unveiled its first "fully functional" prototype for its own self-driving car Monday and plans to test it on Bay Area public roads in the new year.
The dainty two-seater still requires government approval before it can legally operate without a human driver through suburban office parks or downtown streets, but the milestone is the latest sign that driverless cars could soon be a fixture in Silicon Valley neighborhoods and other parts of the world.
"I can imagine these cars starting in closed, campus environments, or cordoned-off test areas with low-speed roads where the risk of collision, injury or death is much lower," said Ratna Amin, director of transportation policy at San Francisco-based urban advocacy group SPUR.
Amin predicts a lot of good coming from autonomous vehicles, but only if state and local policymakers ensure that their use makes cities better. Not many cities are ready for a future with driverless cars, but some are beginning to prepare, she said.
"People like point-to-point transportation," Amin said. "They're going to seek (the cars) if cycling, walking, transit or other modes don't meet their needs. The tricky question is managing the availability of automobiles — how easy we make it, how much space we devote to it. I think it's a really hot debate in denser cities."
Google is now one of seven companies — from Nissan to Mercedes-Benz — that since September have won approval from the state Department of Motor Vehicles to test driverless cars on public roads. But with 25 test vehicles and 107 permitted drivers, Google appears far more invested in the public experimentation than its rivals — and it is the first company to unveil its own prototype, rather than just retrofitting other model cars with driverless software.
Google's biggest victory in unveiling the new prototype might be the cutesy design that steers the public away from dystopian visions of crash-prone robot cars, said Mike Hudson, who tracks the automotive industry for eMarketer.
"It's clearly a friendly vehicle, it has a little face, it wants to appear harmless," Hudson said. "It's goofy looking but in an interesting way ... It doesn't look dangerous."
When it rolls out onto public streets, Hudson said, "It's going to be a lot of people's first interaction with the technology. They're putting a very, very soft touch on it. It's a pretty savvy move."
Such cars could eventually become a revenue source for Google and advertisers able to tap into a car's captive audience of passengers.
"They have their foot in the gate," he said of the company. "The automated car could be a technological platform like a smartphone. Especially with Americans, whose relationship with their cars is fairly intimate."
Hudson said a company like Mercedes or BMW might make a more conventional looking car, but Google is still ahead of the game.
Uninterested in transforming itself into a mass producer of cars, Google said it is now seeking partners in the traditional auto industry to assemble vehicles and bring the Mountain View technology company's visions to market within the next five years.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin predicted two years ago that self-driving cars would be ready for public use by 2017, and still appears determined to make that happen.
San Jose city leaders have been talking to Google about being one of the first Bay Area cities to openly welcome autonomous cars on city roads — at least some of them.
The city this summer formed a 1-square-mile "North San Jose Transportation Innovation Zone" to allow for experimentation of a variety of transportation technologies, from autonomous cars to solar-powered streetlights and electric vehicle charging stations, along 11 miles of roadway.
The cars could be a big improvement in a city where 42 people died in auto accidents last year, and 2,700 were injured, said the city's transportation chief, Hans Larsen.
"The No. 1 reason this occurs is primarily because of human error or behavioral issues," Larsen said. "Technology can make vehicles safer and provide a greater level of sensing than humans can."
But to make the cars work best, urban transportation advocate Amin said, cities need to begin designing themselves differently.
"One of the more promising aspects of autonomous vehicles is being able to reduce the amount of cars people drive, which then means we can reduce the amount of space reserved for parking cars. Parking consumes incredible amounts of urban land that could be used for housing, or jobs or public space instead."
SEVEN COMPANIES TESTING DRIVERLESS CARS
Here are the seven companies that California has approved to test self-driving cars on public roads since the Department of Motor Vehicles began implementing new rules in September. Google was also testing its driverless cars on public roads before the regulations took effect.
—Volkswagen/Audi: Three test vehicles, 25 test drivers permitted; approved Sept. 11
—Mercedes-Benz: Three vehicles, 12 drivers; Sept. 11
—Google: 25 vehicles, 107 drivers; Sept. 11
—Delphi Automotive: Two vehicles, nine drivers; Oct. 10
—Tesla Motors: One vehicle, two drivers; Oct. 10
—Bosch: Two vehicles, two drivers; Oct. 27
—Nissan: Three vehicles, nine drivers; Oct. 28
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