Google posted a video this week of elderly and disabled passengers enjoying a prototype self-driving car, another step towards "transforming mobility for millions of people" the company says.
Mountain View resident Thida Cornes was among those who were first to test the little electric two-seater vehicle, which was revealed on Tuesday.
Cornes, who has a disability, said she really enjoyed the "futuristic experience" of technology that would benefit her. Because of her disability, "it is too painful for me to drive after the first 20 minutes and you don't want to drive while you are in pain."
Google's car of the future looks a bit like a toy made for a small child, and has no steering wheel or accelerator or brake pedals "because they don't need them."
"Our software and sensors do all the work," said Chris Urmson, head of Google's Self-Driving Car Project, in his announcement on a Google blog post Tuesday. He called it "an important step toward improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people."
Among the testers was an elderly couple and a blind man named Steve, who giggles with joy while riding in the car. "Our lives are made up of lots and lots of little things," such as being able to drive places and connect with people, Steve said later. "So there is a big part of my life that's missing, a big part of my life that self-driving cars bring back to me."
Urmson extolled the benefits of the vehicles for seniors, writing that "seniors can keep their freedom even if they can't keep their car keys,"
"I just went into the car with my service dog and and pushed a button and it drove itself," Cornes said. "It was a very smooth ride, it was pretty amazing actually. The braking was as smooth as I've ever experienced."
The car includes sensors that can detect objects in all directions as far as two football fields away.
"I feel like humans are very unpredictable on the road," Cornes said. "I think a computer would more accurately predict (dangers).
"Assuming it works, it's going to be safer than humans. It's going have a better reaction time, and it's going to be able to see better," she said of its 360-degrees view around the car.
Cornes cited other benefits: being able to focus on conversations with her kids: "It would be much better if I wasn't multitasking, if I could spend that time with my kids." And she would no longer depend on disabled parking spaces being available, she said. "I would just tell it to drop me off and then have it park itself."
According to Urmson, the first prototypes will have the speed capped at 25 miles per hour. They feature a front end made of foam and a plastic windshield. The cars are prototypes so they are "light on creature comforts, but we'll have two seats (with seatbelts), a space for passengers' belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen that shows the route and that's about it," Urmson writes.
"We're planning to build about a hundred prototype vehicles, and later this summer, our safety drivers will start testing early versions of these vehicles that have manual controls," Urmson writes. "If all goes well, we'd like to run a small pilot program here in California in the next couple of years. We're going to learn a lot from this experience, and if the technology develops as we hope, we'll work with partners to bring this technology into the world safely."
"There's going to be lot of scrutiny of it," Cornes said. "A lot of it is about public perception."
The video can be seen here.