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Edition # 13
Review - Driverless Car: the Google iMap Ventura
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Google iMap Ventura

Like it or not, the driverless car is here among us.

Guided by software and hardware, the new generation of driverless cars may soon see the end of drivers in cars.

Personally, I find the notion despicable and dangerous but, in the interests of journalism, I took a test drive in the prototype Google iMap Ventura.

driverless car image


On first glance, the Ventura looks like any other family runaround from the year 2412. It is only when you get inside it that the unique features of this driverless car become apparent. First, there is no driver's seat. There is, of course, a passenger seat in front and ample room in the back for two hefty friends. But no driver's seat, as such.

Where do I sit? I thought. Well, the answer is that the driver can sit either in the front passenger seat or in a rotating podule which can emerge through the roof and scan in all directions. The interior position allows for direct on-board software monitoring, while the roof podule provides the "Wow" factor. The traditional driver's position is filled by a human-sized robot with fully functioning face which, I am told , is there essentially to provide reassurance for anxious passengers.

Incidentally, the Ventura's designers claim that they will soon be able to exploit the space inside the vehicle to the extent that the car becomes not only driverless, but human-less: heralding what they describe as a new age of motoring. Lead developer Ford Kiernan, a self-confessed "blue-sky thinker", told me that within our lifetime we will see roads populated by cars so small and independent that the need for occupants will seem worse than pointless. "My dream", said Kiernan, "is of a highway of the future which is as compact and flexible as a Scalextric track".

The Google vision is one where automobiles will become little more than freight vehicles, carrying items such as food, goods and children to and from the homeplace. "The notion of personal transport is fast becoming an anachronism", says Kiernan. "In our children's lifetime, the growth of the Green movement. allied to the sophistications of the video conference call, will soon make face to face contact as alien and disturbing to us as was the sight of bare legs to Victorians".

The Ventura I rode in is a four-seater hatchback (or five seater, if you include the robot) with a built-in nitro-processor and onboard ambient control systems. The software is based on NASA's "intelligent design" protocol, whereby all functions of the vehicle are assessed and executed on the bases of probability and belief. Front and rear-end radar/sonar sytems allow the car to navigate and park not only on congested roads but also to operate successfully at depths of up to four fathoms.

On the road

She's a lightweight. Scary in turns, scary on the straight and scary when another driverless car overtakes. I have rarely never felt so vulnerable since Uncle Brian used to babysit me and my sister.

Kiernan hints that the onboard ambient systems are occasionally prone to rage, conceding that "Our software guys have made it a little too lifelike. We're working on that."

The Ventura robot driver (see right) is modelled on rocker Keith Richards and is equipped with GPS, voice recognition and iTunes.

robot worker image

In the cabin

Cramped due to the hi-tech screens and miscellaneous iPads, intimidating for the same reasons and ultimately lacking in soul, the Ventura - let's be kind - may find a fanbase among geeks and freaks, but probably not among the traditional glove-wearing driver such as yours truly.

The array of gadgetry and computer wizardry is truly frightening for those of us who judge a car on its looks, power and ergonomic ju-ju. In it's favour, the Ventura allows occupants to ingest alcohol and drugs without fear of crashing into a crocodile of schoolchildren. Personally, I've been able to do this for years. But then, I'm a good driver.


It looks like a discarded accessory from a giant's grooming kit, but it handles well (I guess, never having actually handled it) and it delivers an impressive 92mpg. It'll set you back the best part of £60,000 and that's before you even think of installing upgrades and updates or downloading a spare tyre. Ultimately, this is the car of a future I never want to see.

Overall rating: empty space gif

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