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Google’s self-driving car rolls past concept stage and toward public streets

Google decided to give itself and lazy people everywhere a (slightly) early Christmas present in the form of a next-stage self-driving car prototype.

Announced on – where else – Google+, the car looks identical to the cute pod-mobile unveiled back in May. Yet while that car was essentially a mockup (it didn’t even have functioning headlights, Google says), this one has all of the gear needed to undertake the battery of tests engineers have planned.

Google says it’s been working on developing components individually, but this is the first time they’ll be assembled into one, working vehicle.

The company says its new prototype will spend the rest of the holiday season “zipping” around a test track. It hopes to take the car on public roads in Northern California sometime next year.

When operating on public roads, the car will be fitted with temporary manual controls to comply with a California law that requires all vehicles to have some degree of human controllability Рincluding the self-driving prototypes that lawmakers have legally sanctioned.

The purpose-built autonomous car will implement lessons learned from Google’s existing fleet of prototypes, which includes converted Toyota Prius and Lexus RX models.

The test fleet has covered over 700,000 miles, but there are still many aspects of driving the machines have yet to master.

Unpredictable situations like maneuvering in parking garages or through construction zones have proven the most challenging, and it’s still unclear whether the cars’ array of sensors can handle foul weather.

Related: Volvo tests self-driving cars in Sweden

By building its own car, Google is expressing confidence that autonomy will not only become mainstream, but will become an integral part of future car design.

It also means Google’s prototype will be pretty hard to miss if it gets into a crash.