Google’s Car Is the Face of Future Robots

By Jeremy Hsu | December 31, 2014 8:14 am
Google's self-driving car prototype has a mild face for a reason. Credit: Google

Google’s self-driving car prototype has a mild face for a reason. Credit: Google

Robots probably won’t look human when they first begin appearing on the streets in the next several years. But some robot cars such as Google’s self-driving vehicles will have recognizable faces designed to win human hearts and minds. Google hopes to begin testing its custom-made robot cars on the roads of Northern California starting in 2015.

Google’s self-driving car prototype represents a cuddly vision of the robot future that is almost the complete opposite of what most dystopian science fiction films have imagined. The vehicle’s headlights combine with a pert “nose” to give the impression of a wide-eyed baby confronting the world for the first time. Wired has described the car as “an egg with the face of a koala.” Cartoonist Matthew Inman, creator of the popular website The Oatmeal, dubbed the Google cars “adorable Skynet Marshmallow Bumper Bots.” In other words, Google’s car has a face that wordlessly asks people to trust it when they see the driverless vehicle ambling down the road.

Trust is important because the idea of self-driving cars can inspire both excitement and fear. One the one hand, many experts have hailed the future of self-driving cars as delivering human drivers from their own distracted, sleepy, drunk driving habits and possibly reducing the number of road accidents — the cause of 32,719 deaths in the U.S. alone in 2013. A report by the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., suggested that a future filled with self-driving cars could also ease traffic congestion and save people time during their commutes. On the other hand, more than 75 percent of people surveyed by said they would not trust a self-driving car to take their child to school. And only 31 percent of survey respondents said they would let the car’s computer drive whenever possible.

Google knows that it has a lot of work to do in getting people to fully trust its vision of self-driving cars that have only a start and stop button. The technology giant has itself become the face of self-driving cars in the public imagination as the company brand most associated with the technology, according to a report by KPMG, an audit, tax and advisory firm. Yet the same report showed that respondents in focus groups ranging from Los Angeles to New Jersey almost all expressed a need to be able to take control of the car at any point — partly because they didn’t fully trust the self-driving technology and partly because some still wanted to enjoy manual driving.

Part of Google’s “hearts and minds” strategy involves dialing down the aggressive driving in the self-driving car’s behavior and restraining its top speed to 25 miles per hour — a pace more suitable for driving in the streets of suburbia rather than tearing down the highway. Inman, creator of The Oatmeal, recounted his driving experience with a prototype of Google’s self-driving car: “The car we rode in did not strike me as dangerous. It struck me as cautious. It drove slowly and deliberately, and I got the impression that it’s more likely to annoy other drivers than to harm them.”

But Google has also clearly put plenty of thought and care into the face its self-driving car presents to the world. That’s a wise move, given how the fusiform face area of the human brain seems quite willing to interpret the fronts of cars as faces, according to several studies. One 2012 study published in the journal PNAS used fMRI brain scans to see how car “experts” interpreted the car faces. A recent study published on Dec. 17 in the journal PLOS ONE also used such brain scans to examine connections between a person’s tendency to see human attributes in the fronts of cars and the activation of the fusiform face area of the brain. A 2010 study in the journal Evolution & Human Actors has even examined how people of different cultures — specifically Austrian and Ethiopian — interpret the shapes of car fronts as having certain human qualities.

The automobile industry has also recognized the face factor in how it presents its cars to customers. A Wall Street Journal article from 2006 explored the various faces of car models and brands, noting the changing tactics among automakers to either make cars look appealingly cute or menacingly angry. Angry car faces held sway among car buyers at the time, but certain automakers stuck with the kindlier car faces in accordance with their brands.

Google’s idea of going with the cuddly face makes sense for a introducing a potentially terrifying new technology that would come face to face with pedestrians and cyclists on a daily basis. It’s not a new tactic for selling cars, but it does represent a new push to make robots a part of people’s lives in a way that has never been done before.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts, Uncategorized
  • Farouk Zidane

    I think that will really reduce accidents as they are robots moving in specific path, it will be better if they move in limited streets, just for schools, work or whatever commuters go.

  • sinz54

    What does a self-driving car do when a police officer is directing traffic regardless of how the traffic lights are set?

    Can the Google car understand the cop’s gestures and know when to stop and go?

    • Amit

      That’s where you get a message from your car about police officer gestures and you take over the control

  • O[b]ama

    With thousands gathering in NYC for New Year’s, there is an enormous banner at Ground Zero reading “World Transportation Center.”
    Ground Zero is the epicenter of a new infrastructure for self-driving cars.

  • jnffarrell1

    Faces are important on robots. They warn animals and humans when they are looking at us. Wood gatherers and others who have to deal with big cats have decoy eyes painted on the back of their hats to deter attacks. In the case of driverless cars painting eyes on the trunk would warn tailgaiters their activity was only one milisecond away from being on file at the highway patrol (date stamped, chain of evidence assured and trial ready).

  • Alisha Walker

    Don’t let them and their science talk an cudlly faced cars fool you. As long as there are other people who would not get this car in the world, the accidents may still be high or even higher if you cant stop the car. And just like anything else, things can ware an break. An if there is a malfunction, an you don’t have the tools to fix the situation you may end up in a very bad situation. Technology is NOT always the answer. At first yes it was great, helpful even. But this stuff? Really come on people. Even if the accident level goes down, murders wont other accidents wont so there will still be high death numbers i mean this is rediculous. Reguardless if it is cute or not. It probly cant fit a whole family of four or more. Hold a trailer of any sort take supplies any where. We need to appreciate the technology we already have. I mean yeah its kool im glad they can go to extremes an have fun an be happy makin something they thought wouldnt or couldnt ever be possible but this will make is lazy too dependent on technology fat living short lives. An im not the smallest person in the world im a lil big but i dont wana ever become so lazy that simple normal fun things i like to do i would have to depend on that for. That isnt fun that would get boring then all we would do is look for something more an more it just repeats. So if the gov isnt the end of us then technology sure will be. So i hope all of you people choose wisely because its not fair to others for there to be only one option. Not to mention these things may be pricy. So just think of the bigger picture.

    • Dan


    • Matt (82)

      You’re right that it will probably be more difficult to fix

  • Dan

    You would think that Google would see its new technology as more of an enhancement to existing cars. Collision avoidance would be helpful in any state. Maybe it would be a better first step, not sure the world is quite ready for a totally autonomous car.

    • Jason

      It’s 2015. We don’t even have hover cars, yet. Time to stop taking baby steps!

  • Matt (82)

    ” a pace more suitable for driving in the streets of suburbia rather than tearing down the highway.”

    neighborhoods? Suburbs usually have 45+ mph speed limits


Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.


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