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May 31, 2014

Google unveils company-designed driverless vehicle prototypes

SAN FRANCISCO — Google has designed its own self-driving vehicles that transport passengers at the push of a button as it aims to spread the new automotive technology, co-founder Sergey Brin said.

Working with automotive partners, the company plans to have 100 to 200 test vehicles that are fully autonomous with extra safety features, Brin said during a conference Tuesday hosted by technology blog Re/code in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. Google, which until now had added its technology to other vehicles, plans to start testing the prototypes with drivers this year, he said.

Brin's announcement comes amid a push to encourage the adoption of driverless cars, which aim to make roads safer with the company's hardware and software. The two-seat prototypes, which have safety items such as additional foam at the bumper and a plastic-like windshield, are part of the company's research laboratory called Google X, which is led by Brin.

"We took a look from the ground up as to what it would be like if we had self-driving cars in the world," Brin said. "We've worked with partners in the Detroit area, Germany and California," he said without giving specifics.

The prototypes let users ask for a destination address and then drives them to it, Brin said.

The vehicles will initially have a top speed of 25 miles per hour and won't have a steering wheel, accelerator pedal or brake pedal, the Mountain View, California-based company said in a blog post.

Work on autonomous vehicles has gathered speed as carmakers build smarter cars that will help reduce accidents, and make driving easier and safer.

In 2012, there were 1.3 million people killed in road traffic accidents, making it the ninth leading cause of death globally, according to World Health Organization data. It is the leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 29.

Google has been testing driverless cars -- including modified Prius and Lexus models from Toyota  -- mounted with cameras, radar sensors and lasers on U.S. roads. General Motors, Volvo, Nissan and others are jockeying against Google to roll out hands-free cars.

Over the next two decades, self-driving cars are going to get a bigger share of the market. Such vehicles will reach 11.8 million in 2035, according to Egil Juliussen, an analyst at IHS Automotive. And by 2050, he expects almost all cars to become self-driving. They are estimated to fetch premiums that will start at $7,000 to $10,000 in 2025, he said.

Brin said the Google vehicle is still being worked on at this point.

"It's still early" he said. "We're still doing lots of development with the software, the hardware and the experience."

On another Google project, Glass, Brin said he hopes to have it commercially available by the end of the year, while adding he isn't sure at this point. The devices bring digital content and features such as photo-taking and checking messages to computerized eyewear.

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