Waymo just received approval on a patent for a push-button console that replaces not only a steering wheel in a car but the brake and gas pedals, too. This reflects Alphabet's driverless arm could remain true to its original mantra of developing cars that pilot themselves without human intervention.
In many ways, the push-button controls give the riders the same level of control you might have in an elevator, largely confined to just being able to make an emergency stop or to set the vehicle into motion by pressing the "GO" button, as this sketch from the patent shows:
However, Waymo recently indicated it was changing its strategy when it said it was discontinuing its driverless fleet of pod-like Fireflies it designed and tested that did not have steering wheels and pedals. Instead, the company said it was going to focus more closely on offering driverless systems for commercially available car and truck models.
A blog post published in June by Waymo's YooJung Ahn, lead industrial designer, and Jaime Waydo, lead systems engineer, signaled the driverless car division of Google parent Alphabet was at least in part shedding its utopian vision of offering pod-like fleets of cars as an urban transportation alternative.
Instead, Waymo said in June its "next phase" involved offering driverless technology that OEMs could fit into their existing models, which now includes a family car-sized Chrysler minivan.
However, Waymo's recent decision to shift away from making its own cars and instead designing driverless systems for existing models replete with steering wheels and other traditional driving controls for humans could just be temporary. After all, before Waymo was spun off, Google was one of the first companies to issue a warning about the risks associated with driving instead of letting the machines take control in 2012. It determined that humans simply couldn't be trusted to monitor the car's controls once driverless control was switched on. In a report, Google described this as "automation bias."
As we also recently reported, most carmakers and OEMs developing driverless vehicles are skipping Level 3 and are only designing vehicles for Level 4 and Level 5 self-driving, when the car takes the passenger from point A to point B with no human intervention. Steering wheels and other driving controls are thus rendered obsolete for these use-case scenarios.
Perhaps Waymo will rely on suppliers or other OEMs to strip out existing car models' interiors and replace them with a Waymo design in the near future. For that, OEMs will need to rethink car interiors, of course, and Waymo's patent for a push-button control console offers a glimpse of what the cars may indeed look like inside the car.