Google revs up for self-driving trucks and motorbikes

Tech giant is thinking about testing robotic motorcycles and lorries in California
Google engineer Anthony Levandowski designed this robo-bike in 2005

Google is looking beyond four-wheels in its bid to dominate autonomous driving. A story in The Sunday Times reveals that Google has been lobbying California for permission to test self-driving motorbikes and commercial vehicles in Silicon Valley.

Ron Medford, Director of Safety for Google's self-driving car programme, wrote to officials at the state's Department of Motor Vehicles, saying, "It is certainly possible that future testing could include motorcyles or larger commercial vehicles. If some innovator can demonstrate that testing autonomous technology on such vehicles is safe, then they should be allowed to test."

Heading for a million robo-miles

Google's prototype robotic taxi

Google has been testing self-driving Prius and Lexus RT450h cars in California for some time, racking up nearly 700,000 miles of travel. And it recently unveiled a two-seater robotic runabout that doesn't even have a steering wheel

The suggestion for autonomous motorcyles may have come from Anthony Levandowski, an engineer working on Google's self-driving car team. He built his own robo-bike as early in 2005, to compete in a competition organised by US military scientists at DARPA. At the time, he said, "Two-wheeled vehicles are easier to manoeuvre in tight places and can go faster."

Computers in convoy

Google's self-driving Lexus on the streets of Mountain View

Robotic trucks are also gaining favour. An EU project called SARTRE recently showed the feasibility of 'platooning', where cars and trucks automatically link together to form fuel-efficient road trains. A US company called Peloton is already testing semi-autonomous trucks on closed roads in California. 

In 2010, trucks were just 4% of vehicles on US roads but accounted for a quarter of the fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions. Improving efficiency by 5 or 10% with a robotic truck could save billions of dollars a year. But as the rules currently stand, trucks, autonomous motorbikes, trailers and any vehicle weighing over 10,000lbs are forbidden from being tested in California. 

“Although Google is not currently testing any of the vehicles excluded under this section, we believe that the section should be deleted, as any such exclusion unnecessarily restricts future innovation,” wrote Medford.

READ MORE: Google's self-driving car: two seats, no steering wheel and no brake pedal

[Source: The Sunday Times (paywall)]