Without a Driver in Mind: The Google Doodlebug

On February 7, 1661, at the tender age of seven, the Kangxi Emeror who would become the longest reigning emperor in history, ascended to China’s throne. It would be another six years before he managed to seize full control from his regents, but when he did, he proved to be a successful ruler.

Part of the reason for this, I have to think, is that he had at least one really smart friend. You know that friend, right? He’s the (kind of nerdy) one who seems to know at least a little bit about everything and can come up with solutions to any problem.

For the young emperor, that friend was a Jesuit priest named Ferdinand Verbiest who was serving as a missionary in China. Verbiest became a favorite teacher, tutoring the emperor in geometry, philosophy, and music.

Ferdinand Verbiest, Jesuit (1623-1666)
Ferdinand Verbiest, Jesuit (1623-1666)

He spoke more than six languages, wrote more than thirty books, designed and oversaw construction of an aqueduct, was a capable cartographer, used fancy European astronomical gadgetry to correct the Chinese calendar, and rebuilt and headed the Beijing Ancient Observatory. In a day before everyone had the ability to google the answer to any question, a guy like Verbiest was pretty handy to have around.

And then to top it all off, he constructed a totally cool toy to impress the Kangxi Emeror, because what’s a know-it-all nerdy friend without a few impressive gadgety toys?

What Verbiest designed was a steam-powered vehicle. It was designed without a driver in mind as it was only a little over 25 inches long and though he describes it in his book Astronomia Europea, it’s not clear whether or not he ever built it. Still (not to take any credit away from Karl Benz) this may have been, at least in concept, the world’s first ever self-propelled “car.”


So let’s skip ahead a few centuries. I don’t know whether or not you yourself have one of those nerdy know-it-all friends like Verbiest, but fortunately, we all have access to one. In our house, we call him “Google.” Thanks to our smart phones this “friend” now goes with us everywhere and he knows (or at least he thinks he does) pretty much everything about anything.

photo credit: Mez Love via photopin cc
photo credit: Mez Love via photopin cc

Of course you do have to be a little careful because he can’t always be counted on to give you an entirely correct answer. For example, you might ask him who invented the first car and he’ll direct you to some silly blog post about Ferdinand Verbiest, which you should probably just ignore.

But he has held up his end of the nerdy know-it-all friend bargain in the gadgety toy department. After all he did make you a pair of glasses that allow you to pretend to be the Terminator. And now he’s made you a self-propelled car that is designed without a driver in mind.

Just yesterday, Google announced that this summer, it will have about a hundred prototype vehicles ready for testing, without a gas pedal, steering wheel, or brake pedal among them. But don’t worry, your friend Google isn’t a complete idiot. He will include two seatbelts just in case some irresponsible driver of a regular old human-controlled car slams into you.

The new self-driving car seats two, won’t go over 25 miles per hour, and, frankly, looks kind of like a toy. Google hasn’t released a name yet for its newest gadget. I’m thinking it should be the Google Doodlebug. I’m also thinking, I probably won’t be lining up to drive ride in one any time soon.

15 thoughts on “Without a Driver in Mind: The Google Doodlebug

    1. Oh, I know, right? I just think of that movie from a few years back, I Robot, with Will Smith. He refused to use the self-driving feature on his car because he feared the robots taking over the world, and then, predictably, the robots took over the world. Okay, so that might be a little alarmist, but, you’re absolutely right. I am nowhere near trusting enough of technology to hand over the control of the car.

  1. i’m curious what changes will be made with driving laws. will there need to be a passenger 16+ years old? driver’s license obsolete? can i just put my kid in the car all alone and the car will just return home after dropping them off at school?

  2. Bruce Goodman

    I think it’s fantastic! Ultimately it will be a lot safer than having unpredictable humans driving. We first need to get the old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud human drivers off the road!

    1. It’s certainly true that there are a lot of really bad drivers out there. I’m just not confident that the cars themselves will consistently and reliably do better. Well, except when it comes to merging onto the interstate. I don’t know about where you live, but ANYTHING could do that better than the average Missouri driver.

  3. I love this doodlebug thingy. I’m in! I hate to drive and it’s such a waste of time. With this, I could sight see, watch the clouds drift by, and do all the things that I won’t do while driving, like put on makeup, give myself a manicure, eat a taco, take pictures, read, play sudoku, and, of course, text! Everybody advocates mass transit as a way to end vehicle-related woes, but Americans insist on having personal space. Perfect solution. There may be a few to work out first …

  4. This is incredible to see how Google progressed within 1 year about their program “Google self-driving car project”. This is now not anymore, a concept with technical tests using a Toyota cars, as it was last year, with Prius or Lexus RX; this is not anymore a technical solution with engineers embedded in these cars, checking the issues of the software developed.

    This concept allows Google to propose a completely automatized car without any steering wheel nor any pedals of acceleration or brake nor any engineer embedded in the car.

    A new model of usage born

    These cars will not be sold by Google; the cost of cars remains too expensive from now; some rumors speaks about a price of 1 million of dollars for the first Google cars, if we integrate manufacturing costs and R&D costs included; and the running costs of these cars is unknown for the moment; for sure, limited people could buy these cars if they would be allowed to buy them.

    These cars will be firstly rented by Google to replace your car to go to supermarket, to go to airport or to go some meetings in your town. This model reinvent the usage of transports.

    If you are interested, I have posted an article on this incredible & amazing Google Car 2.0 that you can read here: http://worldofinnovations.net/2014/06/15/connected-car-new-model-building-by-google/

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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