Google has landed a partnership with a car manufacturer for the first time since it began working on a self-driving vehicle in 2009.
The internet giant has confirmed a tie-up with the Fiat-Chrysler (FCA) group, which will supply 100 specially adapted minivans for Google's engineers to fit with self-driving technology.
The merger is the first of its kind and will mark a huge expansion of Google's current fleet of 70 self-driving development vehicles.
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Having a far bigger batch of cars to play with, as well as auto industry support, gives credence to Google's claims that it will have a self-driving car on the market in the next decade.
According to Auto Express, Google will receive Chrysler's Pacifica MPV. The choice of using an MPV or minivan as a testing bed is a "calculated one", when you factor in Google's ambitions. The company wants to see autonomous cars primarily compete with public transport and thinks that fleets of autonomous minivans could replace busses.
Autoblog pitches in, saying that, as per the announcement, both Fiat-Chrysler and Google intend to pursue fully autonomous minivans – vehicles requiring no human intervention whatsoever from journey's beginning to end.
Google has firmly signalled its ambitions to take driverless cars even further. The company wants its cars to be so independent that fitting a steering wheel and pedals is unnecessary, something laws currently do not allow.
In many ways, adds Autoblog, Google and Fiat-Chrysler are a brilliant match for a partnership. Google needs FCA as it begins to explore the ins and outs of the automotive industry, while FCA is a company that, prior to the announcement, had not signalled any big ambitions to invest in driverless cars.
It goes against past rumours, too. Towards the end of 2015, there were rumblings that Ford would be a suitor for Google. The two companies did recently join together, but only as part of a lobbying group for companies with self-driving technologies at heart.
Google and Uber unite to lobby for self-driving cars
Google has joined forces with taxi firm Uber to promote self-driving cars and manage the legal framework surrounding them.
The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which includes carmakers Ford and Volvo as well as rideshare firm Lyft, will also aim to convince the general public of the benefits of self-driving cars and allay concerns.
"Self-driving technology will enhance public safety and mobility for the elderly and disabled, reduce traffic congestion, improve environmental quality, and advance transportation efficiency," the lobby group said in a statement.
The alliance will be led by David Strickland, the former administrator of the US National Highway Traffic Administration.
The group argues that the adoption of self-driving vehicles will "reduce the severity and frequency of crashes", pointing out US Department for Transport figures which suggest 94 per cent of traffic accidents are caused by human error.
However, its first challenge will simply be rolling out self-driving cars from both a tech and legal standpoint.
As the BBC reports, fully autonomous vehicles aren't legal in the US, while California, a big hub for those in the self-diving industry, is currently considering banning cars without a steering wheel or pedals or are designed to operate with no passengers aboard. This contrasts with the ambitions of Google, who wants to make the likes of pedals and wheels obsolete.
Added to that, The Guardian says "the liability issues will be thorny. A powerful corporate lobbying force may pose a new challenge for personal injury lawyers, who are already wary of the technology."
Many companies developing self-driving technologies have stated they will accept full liability for accidents, but some worry the power of a lobbying organisation "could unfairly protect tech companies and app makers over their human car owners".
Google: 'Self-driving cars will still be fun'
While many look forward to the introduction of autonomous cars, others are extremely wary, especially car enthusiasts concerned such vehicles will kill off driving as we know it.
It's a fear that Google, which is hatching its own self-driving car, has attempted to allay, according to Autoblog, as John Krafcik, the chief executive of the internet giant's project, revealed ahead of the New York motor show.
"I think we will still have as many – or maybe more – exciting, emotional, wonderful performance cars in the future," he said. "I don't see that going away."
Google's project has caused headaches for driving enthusiasts – not only because the "Panda" car it sees as the future resembles a small a travelling pod and looks exactly like the kind of thing a tech company treading on the toes of the automotive industry would come up with, but also for comments made by some of the firm's figureheads.
Executive chairman Eric Schmidt said last year that future generations would "giggle" at the era of human driving as a reckless mistake. The firm also wants to ship cars without steering wheels or pedals, showing they have little interest in making a car people can actually drive.
Autoblog adds that Krafcik's words may heal some sore patches between Google and car-lovers, but also offer a "cautionary tale". He is a former motor-industry man but it seems his time at Google has seen him change his attitude a little.
"I've had times where I'll go two weeks or more without getting in my personal vehicle," he said. "I don't miss driving. It's the most amazing thing: I don't miss driving."
Google accepts blame for self-driving car crash
One of Google's self-driving prototype cars has been involved in an accident with a bus, raising fresh questions over the development of autonomous vehicles.
Google's cars have crashed before, but this could be the first crash actually caused by the autonomous driving system.
On 14 February, a Google car with a test driver pulled out at a junction at 2mph - right into the path of a bus travelling at 15mph. The incident took place near the internet giant's headquarters in Mountain View, California. No one was injured.
"The human in the Google vehicle reported that he assumed the bus would slow down to let the car out and so he did not override the car's self-driving computer," says the BBC.
In a statement, Google said: "We clearly bear some responsibility because if our car hadn't moved, there wouldn't have been a collision.
The company has covered millions of miles in testing but despite several scrapes, has never attributed any accident to the self-driving system.
In January, it reported that its cars had been in 13 "near misses" over 15-months - instances where a human driver had to take avoiding action.
According to The Guardian, the company has since refined the software used to make the car more aware of larger vehicles and how they are less likely to give way.
Hilary Rowen, a partner at the insurance regulation practice Sedgwick LLP, told the paper the crash is an example of a conundrum that is likely to become commonplace in the future.
"Here, the software didn't avoid the accident, but the human could have taken over," she said. "Who's at fault – the driver, the bus driver or the software?"
As for what the crash means for Google, The Verge argues that so long as autonomous cars and human-driven ones exist on the road together, accidents are inevitable and that unless every single car on the road is autonomous, most accidents can be traced back to human error.
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