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Google Puts the Brakes on Its Autonomous Bubble Car

Instead of designing cars without controls, the company will reportedly focus on working with automakers to build more conventional vehicles.
December 13, 2016

Google looks to be making a U-turn on its plans to create a fully autonomous car.

Last year, the company unveiled its vision of the future of autonomous cars: small, bubble-shaped vehicles without steering wheels or pedals. Fast-forward 18 months, though, and now a report by the Information (paywall) suggests that the company is putting that plan on hold. Instead, it will work with automakers to develop more conventional autonomous cars.

The news follows the departure of the project’s technical lead, Chris Urmson, earlier this year. Urmson was apparently a keen advocate of the control-free concept. But according to the New York Times, the former Carnegie Mellon University researcher struggled to see eye-to-eye with the former head of Hyundai’s American division, John Krafcik, who was appointed CEO of the autonomous-car project last year.

The bubble may have burst for Google's cute vision of the future of cars.

With Urmson gone—and apparently starting his own autonomous-car venture—the project’s ambitions have been reined in, reportedly by Alphabet’s CEO, Larry Page, and CFO, Ruth Porat. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: last week, Bloomberg noted that Porat has been tightening budgets on Google research projects, killing ones that don’t pass muster with Page in order to focus on commercializing the most promising initiatives.

Instead of building its adorable visions of the future, then, Google will instead double down on projects carried out in collaboration with automakers, the Information claims. In particular, it will turn its attention to an ongoing project with Fiat Chrysler to build autonomous hybrid Pacifica minivans. The vehicles may even be used in a robotic taxi scheme, an idea that the company is reportedly exploring for launch in 2017.

Earlier this year, Krafcik said that the autonomous-car project was getting set to graduate from a project beneath Google’s X moonshot umbrella to become its own independent company. It looks as though that transition is going to come with a significant scaling back on ambition in an effort to achieve a commercial reality.

(Read more: The Information, Recode, “Why Google’s Self-Driving Bubble Cars Might Catch On,” “Alphabet’s Self-Driving-Car Wizard Picked a Great Time to Quit”)

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