Google’s Trike Fleet Takes Its Street View Peepers Off-Road

The new cache of photos aren’t of streets, but of gardens, hiking trails, and parks. And they were taken by camera mounts on tricycles. Impressive, but do they serve ice cream?

Google Street View trike


Yesterday, Google released a trove of new images in Google Street View, the well known (and quite controversial) service of Google Maps that provides photographic imagery of city streets. Only, the new cache of photos aren’t of streets, but of gardens, hiking trails, and parks. And they weren’t taken by cameras mounted on cars–but on tricycles.

Google engineer Daniel Ratner first got the idea for the Google trikes in 2007, when he visited the cobblestone streets of Barcelona. He realized that Google Street view wouldn’t be possible there in the way it was here, since many alleyways weren’t accessible to cars. When he returned to San Francisco, he was standing outside the Ferry Building and saw a tricycle pedicab scoot by. He realized that he was looking at the solution to Street View’s access problem.

Ratner used his Google-endorsed “20 percent time” outfitting a souped-up trike. The result, a 250-pound, 9-food-long, 7-foot-high abomination of a thing, has been going off-road since the fall of 2009, documenting spaces like the Kew Gardens in London, Sea World in Orlando, and hiking trails of the Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve. Maneuvering a trike like that is a feat of athleticism, and Google often employs soccer players or other athletes to do so.

street ice cream vendor

Of course, many people around the world have found the Google Street View team invasive enough, even when confined only to cars. The notion of a more maneuverable fleet of vehicles surely strikes fear into the hearts of privacy advocates. Yet Ratner seems blissfully unaware of any such concern in his interview with the San Jose Mercury News. “I feel like we’re just scratching the surface of what sorts of images our users want to see,” a breathless Ratner told them. (What’s next? Google Catburglar, with 360-degree views of you as you sleep?)


The most common reaction to the trikes out in the field isn’t fear or disgust, he said. Rather–and “this is not tongue in cheek,” he notes–“they literally want to know whether we have ice cream.”

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[Images: Flickr users pashasha, bossco]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.