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NPR's Business News begins with, who's behind the wheel? Google is taking a detour into the world of automobiles and becoming a carmaker, but not just any car - a car that drives itself. In an effort to create a fully 100 percent self-driving vehicle, something that needs no human being at the steering wheel, the company is building a car without a steering wheel. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports that scientists have been working on this hush-hush project for the past year.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: As it stands, or drives, now, the self-driving car of today is plenty futuristic. I'm sitting in a Lexus that's been modified radically to drive itself around town. The steering wheel moves all on its own, without anyone touching it. And it even puts on the turn signals. Dmitri Dolgov is the lead scientist with Google X who is taking me for this spin around Mountain View. And he's not looking at the road.
DMITRI DOLGOV: Here we have a couple of cyclists that we're tracking, and they're showing up as red boxes on my screen.
SHAHANI: His eyes are fixated on his laptop. It's creating a real-time map of every cyclist, driver and pedestrian at this busy intersection by pulling in data from the sensors whirring round and round on top of the car. Dolgov now points to a little dot that's moving across his screen.
DOLGOV: We were tracking a pedestrian that was on the other side of the intersection that I, myself, couldn't even see until he passed that truck over there.
SHAHANI: Google's self-driving car has gotten smarter over the years. And the company is ready for its next big leap. It's scientists are tired of cramming their big, bold vision for human-free driving into a hunk of metal that was made for a human operator.
CHRIS URMSON: Instead of taking a Lexus and adding sensors and computing to it, we've started developing prototype vehicles that actually are built from the ground up to be fully self-driving.
SHAHANI: Chris Urmson is another lead developer at Google X. His team has built three prototypes so far. They're hidden away in the deepest recesses of the company's laboratories. So he shows me a picture of one - a small two-seater that looks like a buggy.
URMSON: It has this face on the front that just smiles at you.
SHAHANI: It's so cute. If it had cheeks, I'd pinch them. It's also got super vision...
URMSON: They'll be able to see about two football fields in every direction.
SHAHANI: ...And a windshield, but no wipers to wipe away the rain.
URMSON: The dome at the top - which is how it drives - it has windshield wipers to clear that.
SHAHANI: The car has a steel frame to protect passengers, but the front face is made of soft foam that causes less damage in an accident. It'll go slow and focus on city street driving - perfect for a night out drinking.
Google X won't disclose the cost, but, Urmson says, the three prototypes will be on the road this summer. This is a huge leap of faith into the world of computers and algorithms.
URMSON: We think it is a world where you don't have to worry about driving - where that gets taken care of for you.
SVEN BEIKER: Right now, in the year 2014, we are just making the step toward partial automation - that means the driver still needs to be in the loop.
SHAHANI: Sven Beiker is a professor at Stanford's Center for Automotive Research. And he doesn't think he's going to see a fully self-driving car in his lifetime. But this move by Google is part of an auto-industry trend. All car companies in Europe, Japan, Detroit are moving towards automation. Humans get tired, drunk, distracted while texting, but computers...
BEIKER: Computers probably will not have the same level of accident risk, even if it will not be completely down to zero. But we will have many, many fewer accidents.
SHAHANI: While this vision of driving is futuristic, Google is still playing old-school politics. The company has hired a former federal transportation tsar to lobby for self-driving cars. Aarti Shahani, NPR news.
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