How practical is Google's driverless car?

After years of teasing consumers, Google finally revealed this week what a driverless car would look like. While the concept has delighted tech watchers, some analysts say it will still take significant tweaking before this vehicle is street legal.

Beep, beep. Car, which currently reaches only 40 km/h, faces many legal, regulatory hurdles

Google co-founder Sergey Brin shows off a driverless car, a modified Toyota, that the company has been tooling around in for a couple of years now at its Mountain View, Calif., campus. Google said in April 2014 that the cars can now negotiate thousands of urban situations that would have stumped them a year or two ago. (Associated Press)

Google has been teasing consumers with tidbits about its driverless cars for several years now, but it wasn't until this week that it revealed what this futuristic technology would actually look like.

The prototype is a subcompact car that looks like a computer mouse, has no steering wheel or gas and brake pedals and reaches a maximum speed of roughly 40 kilometres an hour. 

Google says that 100 of these prototypes will be built in the Detroit area, and the company expects them to be on the road by next year. 

At the Code Conference in Los Angeles this week, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said the self-driving car concept "is about changing the world for people who are not well-served by transportation today."

The futuristic car clearly has its backers, but some analysts, while intrigued, are skeptical about whether this concept is as game-changing as Google thinks.

While they acknowledge a driverless car would have immediate benefits for seniors and the disabled, a self-driving car raises a number of legal and regulatory issues.

Here's a look at some of the applications — and complications — of putting Google's driverless car on the road.

Increased mobility for seniors and people with disabilities

The prototype, which was revealed on Tuesday, has buttons that a passenger presses to begin and end the ride. The passenger sets the route by identifying the destination on a map or by using spoken commands.

In lieu of human operation, the vehicle is outfitted with sensors and cameras mounted on the roof that allows it to analyze what surrounding cars are doing and react accordingly.

The most obvious beneficiaries of a self-driving car would be seniors or the disabled, who may not be able to operate a conventional automobile.

This image provided by Google shows a very early version of Google's prototype self-driving car. The two-seater won't be sold publicly, but Google on Tuesday said it hopes by this time next year, 100 prototypes will be on public roads. (Google / Associated Press)

A car such as this would go a long way in restoring some independence for someone with a physical disability, says Tony Dolan, chair of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and a partial quadriplegic.

As a person with disabilities, he says, "you're always striving for that ability to live as normally as you can." And often as cheaply as you can.

Dolan owns a retrofitted Dodge Caravan minivan, which has a powered ramp, a modified driver's seat, hand controls for acceleration and braking, and a spinner knob on the steering wheel.

It cost him $43,000 US, and he says he had to buy it in the U.S. because the cheapest comparable vehicle he could find in Canada would have cost $68,000 CDN.

Dolan acknowledges that Google's self-driving car would alleviate some of the issues that prohibit many disabled people from driving, but he is concerned about the potential cost. (Google hasn't announced a price tag.)

"The first thing a person with a disability would say about the Google car is, Oh, that's great – but can I afford it? How am I going to pay for that?"

Not necessarily a fun ride

Thilo Koslowski, an automotive analyst with the Gartner consultancy group, says that with a current top speed of 40 km/hr (25 mph), the Google car would not make a particularly effective or fun consumer vehicle.

While there is undoubted curiousity about a car that drives itself, most people still prefer to drive themselves. Koslowski cites a recent poll that showed 35 per cent of respondents would be interested in purchasing such a vehicle, while the rest still preferred a traditional car.

Koslowski says he sees a greater potential for the Google car as an automated taxi or a means to transport goods. He also believes that it could be a valuable mode of transport in low-traffic areas, such as universities, factories or airports.

"There is an opportunity for these kinds of self-driving vehicles to be used at lower speeds on campuses or very specific city areas," says Kozlowski.

And while there may well be greater consumer interest in the future, he suggests those vehicles "would have to look very different from the prototype that was shown" this week.

Street legal?

Champions of driverless cars say they would nullify speeding, drunk driving and distracted driving, the prime causes of automobile accidents.

However, there are currently very strict regulations governing the use of these sorts of vehicles on the streets in both Canada and the U.S.

Koslowski points out that the state of California recently announced that in order for a self-driving car to be on the street, there must be two certified engineers sitting in the front seat in order to assume control in case things go awry.

Peter Henein, a product liability lawyer and partner at the Toronto firm Cassels Brock & Blackwell, also sees a number of liability issues with a concept such as this.

Because the vehicle is wholly automated, Henein says the most obvious concern is computer error or failure. As well, because the car relies on an internet connection to identify and navigate to its destination, a drop in the signal could bring the car to a halt — possibly in a very precarious situation.

"If the map is being updated remotely, and there's a lack of connectivity, the car may not know where to go and then the car may not move," says Henein.

Henein also points out that the current prototype is a small car with little apparent safety protection, and would be unlikely to survive a collision with a large truck.

"That doesn't make the [driverless] vehicle dangerous, but it means you have to carefully regulate where it can be driven."

Another question with the car is the liability when a vehicle such as this gets into an accident — would it be the fault of the passenger, the owner or the manufacturer?

A spokesperson for the Insurance Bureau of Canada says it's "too early for us to comment on the insurance implications of the Google driverless car."

Henein says determining liability in the case of an accident between a driverless car and a conventional car would be no different than a collision between two conventional automobiles.

It would require an investigation of the specific circumstances and a determination of whether the accident was created through the actions of the people in the vehicle or a malfunction of the vehicle itself.

'A whole other set of data'

Because the car is fully automated and reliant on geo-location information to determine its routes, the vehicle's computer — and, by extension, Google — will inevitably gather data on passengers habits, Matt Braga, a Canadian tech journalist, told CBC News.

Google currently collects data on consumers through its search engine and email services, which it sells to third parties. Braga says that the self-driving car could provide Google with even more personal information.

"You have this company that already knows things like your purchasing behaviour and who you talk to.

"They'll now have this extra data. They'll know things like, 'Stacy goes to the gym every Thursday,'" Braga said.

"It's a whole other set of data that could be exciting or terrifying."


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