Google has been quietly operating its own car company for almost five years.
Named “Google Auto LLC,” the separate entity first surfaced back in 2011. This was also around the same time it started using Lexus SUVs for testing, before the iconic fleet of Prius saloons.
Leading the low-key business is Chris Urmson, who is also the project leader of the self-driving cars division. Earlier this year, he expressed the need for close partnerships with well-established car brands, including Toyota, Ford and Volkswagen.
Urmson’s solution would’ve been the most practical approach to take, but Google had something else planned for the future. For now, no collaborations have been announced or formed. Instead, the passenger vehicle manufacturer decided to start producing its own units with a car maker license in California. Assembling the cars is Roush, an engineering firm based in Detroit, Michigan.
Google Auto’s Humble Beginnings
Below is a list of Google Auto’s activities and recent milestones:
- applied for international vehicle identification number (VIN) codes
- liaised with America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
- organized emissions testing in California
- decided cars will be lightweight low speed vehicles (LSVs) with only 25mph as top speed
- cars will be rear-wheel drive in design, each wheel with braking system, powered by a 20-30kW electric motor
According to California’s department of motor vehicles database, Google Auto manufactured 23 self-driving vehicles that are currently being tested in live, urban environments. The company’s transportation pods do not have the basic parts of traditional cars, such as accelerators, steering wheels and brake pedals.
Some of the vehicles from the batch were part of the questionable accidents that took place around Mountain View. The series of mishaps were likely caused by human error and no one was serious injured during the minor collisions.
“It is a distraction, and when people get distracted, I can imagine behaviors changing. Another reason could be that Google cars have the Google logo splashed on them, saying they are self-driving cars. People looking at that could be distracted from their normal mode of operations,” said Raj Rajkumar, designer of several autonomous cars at Carnegie Mellon University.
Building Cars from Scratch Is Risky Business
Anita Krug, an associate professor of law at University of Washington, suggested that Google created a new entity for protection, as a way to safeguard the business from unwanted claims that could arise out of the venture. Compared to its mainstream products, such as Google Glass and Gmail, an autonomous vehicle comes with much higher risks.
In the car manufacturing industry, massive recalls and legal disputes can sink a company very quickly. Even reputable automobile brands are exposed to such events and encounters on a regular basis.
“It could well be the product of Google’s anticipation for the success of the company, that at the get-go they started it with a different company. The thought might have been, let’s have a wholly owned subsidiary now and maybe if it does succeed, we can just spin it off into its own company,” speculated Krug.