What is the significance of Firefly, which is hand-built and completely independent of Google?
MotorTrend, in partnership with BlackBerry, sets out to highlight the champions of the software-defined vehicle revolution. The pioneers who led this way and the innovators behind what is to come. These are the people who are planning the future of transportation as we know it, using software as the catalyst. To achieve this, MotorTrend created a 172-page book, a 22-minute documentary, and hosted the first annual Software Defined Vehicle Innovators Awards in Las Vegas during CES 2023. Click here to download the 172-page eBook and watch the Car Coding Documentary. Below is a transcript of one of the stories from the Coding the Car post.
Long before the controversy surrounding Tesla’s beta testing of its “full self-driving” package on public roads, before Google split itself into Alphabet and Waymo, and before Waymo sued Uber in a landmark case over allegedly stolen trade secrets, it was one of the few companies… It succeeded in achieving this goal – the world’s most developed self-driving car programs were quietly underway at Google. Soon after, a small two-seater electric car without a steering wheel or pedals will appear to embody its efforts.
At the start of its self-driving vehicle program in 2009, Google adapted existing car platforms for use in its experiments, starting with a sensor-equipped Toyota Prius. Today, it operates a mixed fleet of modified Jaguar I-Pace electric cars and Chrysler Pacifica minivans that are undergoing real-world testing under Waymo, a company that Google spun off as a separate business unit in late 2016 to further develop itself. – Driving technology.
Meanwhile, Google has done what Apple and other players have so far failed to attempt (publicly): it has built a car with no human control points like a steering wheel or brake pedal, a car intended strictly for fully autonomous, focus-free driving. Dubbed “Firefly” internally, it also became known as the Google Car.
Oh so cute and practical
The cool-looking two-passenger minivan was first shown to the public in 2014. It was designed with animal appeal (koalas came to mind for some) in an effort to comfort passengers and pedestrians alike and serve as a distraction from the cold. And robotic effects for its intended purpose. Unlike its namesake insect, the Firefly was never designed for sharp handling or fast flight, instead being powered by a modest electric motor that reaches a maximum speed of 25 mph.
Google has designated the Firefly as a “reference” vehicle for its technology development — a testbed where it can iterate on different configurations of hardware and software (like the cute siren-like lidar sensor mounted in the middle of its roof), and to get an early read on how normal people would react. With a self-driving car in the real world. In essence, she served as Google’s new, friendly public face for the larger self-driving vehicle issue.
The Firefly was built from the ground up and assembled in Detroit in collaboration with traditional automotive suppliers. The prototype and development process provided Google with key lessons that could not have been achieved otherwise, and helped it establish partnerships within the industry. Since the car wasn’t much faster than most golf carts, it was only intended for low-speed environments, where Google believed the bulk of its autonomous fleet would spend most of its time operating, and where customers would likely find the most benefit to the Robotaxi.
As a reference vehicle, the Firefly served its purpose incredibly well. To convince the world – and perhaps itself – to trust its technology, Google has removed passengers from any car controls to avoid any risk of confusion over who is in charge: the car. It was also an excellent marketing tool, and an attempt to show the world that people could be confident in riding in a car without pedals and a wheel. (California eventually forced Fireflies operating on state roads to have a steering wheel.)
Flying in the firefly
MotorTrend caught up with Firefly in person during a short test flight hosted by Google in late 2015, one of hundreds it has given to journalists, government officials, and other interested parties. We noticed that the interior was full of soft plastic surfaces, with decent storage space, plenty of room for two passengers, and a giant “Go” button as one of the few controls available. As for ride impressions, here’s how MotorTrend editor-in-chief Ed Loh put it at the time:
“I was hoping for more. Google’s self-driving technology is impressive; our short trips in its two cars clearly showed that there’s a lot of capability beyond what the team showed us. But the humility is understandable given what’s at stake. However, it’s still There are so many moments where you can’t help but be amazed.”
Fame, fortune and early retirement
Firefly also gained a measure of notoriety in late 2015, when Google conducted the world’s “first fully driverless ride on public roads” in Austin, Texas, with a blind passenger on board — and no backup driver. The bold demonstration of its advanced driverless technology was another sign of Google’s focus on building trust in its testing program. Along the way, the Fireflies have logged more than a million miles on public roads, and one was even stopped in Mountain View, California, near Google’s headquarters, by local police for driving too slowly.
Faced with the need to expand its self-driving program beyond the confines of Firefly, and undoubtedly taking into account the myriad factors involved in the serial production of cars, Waymo decided to retire its fleet of about 50 Google Cars in 2017. By that time, most of the Fireflies had moved to various museums around the world, including the Computer History Museum in Mountain View and the Design Museum in London.
Ultimately, the Firefly will be remembered as one of the most futuristic vehicle prototypes ever produced in automotive history, a car that helped Google promote its self-driving efforts in a self-effacing way. But discontinuing Firefly, whether it was intended for more than that or not, gave Waymo the freedom to focus on the bigger picture of working relentlessly toward a self-driving future — without having to reinvent the car in the process.
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