Google’s driverless cars take to the streets

The ‘robot’ vehicles were first created in the company’s secretive X division five years ago

Google Inc's self-driving car technology likely will not be available for several more years.

But the company is already beginning the job of making the public comfortable with the futuristic vehicles.

A fleet of Google's robot cars ferried more than two dozen reporters around Mountain View, California, yesterday in 30-minute ride-alongs that showcased their ability to automatically and safely navigate around city streets packed with cyclists, pedestrians and traffic signs.

The demonstrations marked the company’s most concerted effort to date to provide an up-close look at the cars conceived five years ago in its secretive Google X division.


"Over the last year and a half, we've moved from driving on freeways to driving on surface streets and we're now kind of at the point where we're confident that that can happen. We really think that making vehicles that are fully self driving, that will take you from your house to grandma's house without you ever having to drive is really the big step forward and we're very excited about it," Chris Urmson, the director of Google's self-driving car project, said.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin tout the driverless car as revolutionary technology that could eventually sharply reduce fatalities on the road. But it remains to be seen whether it's ready for widespread use.

For self-driving cars, consumer acceptance and regulation may be as much issues as perfecting the technology.

Google will not say whether it will build its own cars or license the technology to automakers, nor will it provide a firm date for when the cars will be available. Co-founder Brin has said the technology could be available by 2017.

It would be hard to mistake the gold Lexus RX 450h cars that Google has converted into self-driving prototypes for normal cars, primarily because of the roof-mounted laser sensor that revolves 10 times a second, gathering a 360-degree view of the car’s surroundings.

The vehicles have become so prominent on the streets in and around Google’s headquarters that their novelty may be wearing off just a bit.

“At first it’s exciting because it’s new, it’s technology that you haven’t seen before and it’s driving itself. But after about five minutes everyone is ‘well is that all it does?’ as it’s driving along, right, so we think it will . . .it’s just incredibly common once you get used to it,” Google’s Chris Urmson said.

Google’s cars have never “caused” an accident in self-driving mode, although they have been involved in a few fender benders, such as an incident in which a Google car stopped at a red light got rear-ended, said Mr Urmson, the head of Google’s self-driving car project.

Unlike human drivers, self-driving cars never get drowsy behind the wheel, and they can react to unforeseen situations much more quickly, he said.