LOS ANGELES — Google said that the cars being programmed to drive themselves have started to master the navigation of city streets and the challenges they bring, from jaywalkers to weaving bicyclists — a critical milestone for any commercially available self-driving car technology.
Despite the progress over the past year, the cars have plenty of learning to do before 2017, when the Silicon Valley tech giant hopes to get “autonomous driving” technology to the public.
None of the traditional automakers has been so bullish. Instead, they have rolled out features incrementally, including technology that brakes and accelerates in stop-and-go traffic, or keeps cars in their lanes.
“I think the Google technology is great stuff. But I just don’t see a quick pathway to the market,” said David Alexander, a senior analyst with Navigant Research who specializes in autonomous vehicles.
His projection is that self-driving cars will not be commercially available until 2025.
Google Inc.’s self-driving cars already can navigate freeways comfortably, albeit with a driver ready to take control. In a new blog post, the project’s leader said test cars now can handle thousands of urban situations that would have stumped them a year or two ago.
“We’re growing more optimistic that we’re heading toward an achievable goal — a vehicle that operates fully without human intervention,” project director Chris Urmson wrote. The benefits would include fewer accidents, since in principle machines can drive more safely than people.
Urmson’s post was the first official update since 2012 on a project of the company’s secretive Google X lab.
For now, human drivers would take control if the computer fails. The promise is that, eventually, there would be no need for a driver. Passengers could read, daydream, even sleep — or work — while the car drives.
That day is still years away, cautioned Navigant’s Alexander.
He noted that Google’s retrofitted Lexus RX450H SUVs have a small tower on the roof that uses lasers to map the surrounding area. Automakers want to hide that technology in a car’s existing shape, he said. And even once cars are better than humans at driving, it will still take several years to get the technology from development to large-scale production.
5 things to know about
Google’s self-driving cars
Google said its cars have now driven about 700,000 accident-free miles on freeways in “autonomous mode” — with the car in control, though a safety driver sits behind the wheel. That’s the equivalent of about 120 San Francisco-to-Manhattan-to-San Francisco road trips.
With that success, Google has been focusing on city driving for the past year. Freeways are relatively simple for the cars — no blind corners, no cyclists and no pedestrians. City streets have all that and more, including intersections and complex interactions with other drivers, such as who goes first at a four-way stop sign.
Google said that in the past year, the Lexus RX450H SUVs it has retrofitted with lasers, radar and cameras rapidly learned how to handle thousands of urban driving situations. The robot’s vision can now “read” stop signs (rather than rely on a map to plot them out) and differentiate between hundreds of objects in real time. It also can negotiate construction zones much more reliably. But the technology is far from perfect. Improvements are needed in merging and lane changes, turning right on red and handling bad weather.
COMING TO A NEIGHBORHOOD NEAR YOU?
Not in the near future — unless you live in Mountain View, Calif., where Google is located. So far, the tech giant has focused street driving in its hometown, which it has mapped parts of in tremendous detail. The mapping helps the car’s computer make sense of its environment and focus on moving parts — other cars, cyclists and pedestrians. Just four states — California, Nevada, Florida and Michigan — and Washington, D.C., have formally opened public streets to testing of self-driving cars, though testing is probably legal nearly everywhere (because it is not expressly banned).
THE FUTURE IS (NOT QUITE) HERE
In 2012, Google co-founder Sergey Brin predicted that the public would be able to get hold of the technology within five years. Google isn’t revising that date. Initially, drivers would be expected to take control if the computer fails. Eventually, the vision goes, there would be no need for a person in the driver’s seat — or at least not a driver who has to watch the road.
GOOGLE, THE CARMAKER?
While Google has enough money to invest in making cars, that likelihood is remote. More likely options include collaborating with major carmakers or giving away the software, as Google did with its Android operating system. Meanwhile, traditional automakers are developing driverless cars of their own. Renault-Nissan’s CEO said he hopes to deliver a model to the public by 2020.