Meet Google Auto. That's the name of the search giant's stealth car division, which it set up in 2011 as a limited liability company (LLC), according to documents obtained by The Guardian under a Public Records Act request in California:
Initially, Google used [Auto] to modify and test the fleet of driverless Lexus SUVs that succeeded the company’s first self-driving Prius saloons. Google Auto is named as the manufacturer of all 23 autonomous Lexus cars registered with California’s department of motor vehicles, including all the vehicles involved in a recent spate of minor accidents in and around Google’s home town of Mountain View.
Setting up an LLC can protect parent companies from creditors, if a project doesn't pan out. (No lawsuits have been filed in relation to the accidents.) But it looks like Google is doubling down on self-driving cars. In May of this year, it announced that it would be test-piloting its new fleet of robocars in Mountain View, where the company is headquartered. These small pod-like vehicles are different than the self-driving Lexus cars that Google has been testing for some time, although they use some of the same sensors and software. The key, though, is that they don't have steering wheels.
Google Auto is headed by Chris Urmson, the chief of Google's self-driving car initiative. Urmson has always been vocal about the benefits self-driving cars could bring society. At a TED conference, he referred to drivers as the most unreliable part of the car.
According to The Guardian, Urmson was appointed Google Auto's manager last May. The day after, Google announced that it was planning to build 100 autonomous vehicles from scratch. These are the cars that Google said it'd be testing this summer.
Google Auto controls Google's self-driving car business dealings, according to The Guardian:
It was Google Auto LLC that applied for the international vehicle identification number (VIN) codes to identify each new self-driving car, just like any other production vehicle. Google Auto also liaised with America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and organised emissions testing in California. To avoid onerous safety requirements and crash tests, Google Auto’s cars would be lightweight low speed vehicles (LSVs), capable of a top speed of only 25mph. Paperwork filed by Google Auto with the NHTSA, and seen by the Guardian, indicates that the cars are rear-wheel drive in design, with each wheel having its own braking system. The cars are powered by a modest 20-30kW electric motor from a lithium ion battery.
The cars are being manufactured outside Detroit, Michican by the engineering firm Roush. This could actually be a financial boon for Michigan and the rest of the Rust Belt. Earlier this week, the University of Michigan announced that it had set up MCity, a fake city to test and research self-driving cars in. Fifteen car manufacturers, including Ford, General Motors and Nissan, each paid $1 million to build mCity. The goal is to see how cars perform in unpredictable situations.
In January, at the North American International Auto, Google Auto chief Urmson "announced talks with General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Daimler and Volkswagen," in an attempt to set up partnerships, but "to date, no such partnership has emerged," reports The Guardian. Perhaps, that's because partnering doesn't really make sense when you're already ahead of the curve on developing your own robovehicles, and the artificial intelligence software necessary to make them work.
This is yet another example of how Google, and other traditionally software-oriented companies, are creeping into our physical spaces. On Friday, Facebook announced it was getting ready to test ginormous solar-powered, Internet-delivery drones.
Urmson reportedly told the NHTSA that “Google Auto LLC has not offered any of its LSVs for sale, and it does not plan to do so.” But it's likely that sometime in the future, they'll be up for sale, like Google laptops, phones and tablets.
Google did not respond to a request for comment but we'll update this post if it does.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.