Google is building a self-driving car without a steering wheel with hopes of having 100 prototypes on public roads this time next year.
The electric-powered two-seater, which will have a top speed of 25mph, will have no steering wheel, no brake and no accelerator pedals – just buttons for go and stop. The car will not be sold publicly, but Google hopes to build the 100 prototypes and use them in a "pilot programme".
The cars are a natural next step for Google, which has driven hundreds of thousands of miles in California with Lexus SUVs and Toyota Priuses fitted with a combination of sensors and computers and ‘safety drivers’ behind the wheel in case of emergency.
Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, told a Southern California audience of his first ride: "It reminded me of catching a chairlift by yourself, a bit of solitude I found really enjoyable."
The car relies on a suite of sensors, including a LIDAR system that allows it to map its surrounding environment, and Google software to combine this information with maps of the world.
According to a post on Google’s blog, the car is able to detect objects out to a distance of more than two football fields in all directions and has sensors to eliminate blind spots, but the design focus has been on safety rather than luxury so the interior features little more than two seats with seatbelts, a space for passengers’ belongings, start and stop buttons and a screen that shows the route.
The technology giant is unlikely to go deeply into car manufacturing, emphasising partnering with other firms as it unveiled the prototype, and the biggest obstacle to the project could be the law.
Test versions will have a wheel and pedals, because they must under California regulations, and will be initially tested with safety drivers, but by the end of this year, California's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) must write regulations for the operational use of driverless cars.
The DMV had thought that reality was several years away, so it would have time to perfect the rules.
Head of the DMV's driverless car programme Bernard Soriano said: "Because of what is potentially out there soon, we need to make sure that the regulations are in place that would keep the public safe but would not impede progress."