Meet the new Google self-driving car: no steering wheel, no pedals, no problems?

May 28, 2014: 01:37 AM ET

(gigaom.com) -- Google’s new prototype for its self-driving car project looks like a cross between The Love Bug, a Little Tikes car, and the crazy taxi cab from Total Recall.

It doesn’t yet have a model name, but Google co-founder Sergey Brin announced the new vehicle Tuesday evening at the Code Conference, saying that Google plans to make a couple hundred prototypes in partnership with undisclosed manufacturing partners. The earliest self-driving cars were modified Toyota Priuses complete with all the usual controls you’d find on a standard car, but the new prototype comes without a steering wheel, brake pedals and accelerator pedals.

All you do is push a button (once you’ve informed the car of your intended destination) and off you go, assuming the car doesn’t need to download a software update or anything. Here’s how Google described the new prototypes in a blog post Tuesday evening:

They have sensors that remove blind spots, and they can detect objects out to a distance of more than two football fields in all directions, which is especially helpful on busy streets with lots of intersections. And we’ve capped the speed of these first vehicles at 25 mph. On the inside, we’ve designed for learning, not luxury, so we’re light on creature comforts, but we’ll have two seats (with seat belts), a space for passengers’ belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen that shows the route—and that’s about it.

Brin is often asked why Google — a web search company — is messing around with self-driving cars, and he was of course asked that question again Tuesday night. He had several good answers, such as the woeful state of public transportation outside big urban areas in the U.S. and the waste generated by the need to park our cars; especially when we have to search endlessly for a spot that the street sweepers don’t plan to visit early the following morning.

But perhaps his best answer was came later in response to an unrelated question about Google: “We are at our best when we change how something is viewed.”

Self-driving cars are an inevitability, and as we’ve often covered, there are far more companies than Google working on such projects. But Google has an intriguing combination of technical expertise, the devil-may-care-attitude that comes from huge profits generated by a dominant — and unchallenged — position in the web search market, and the PR magic dust generated by Brin, a technologist who genuinely cares about solving hard problems.

Featured image courtesy Flickr user Thomas Hawk.

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