Google Driverless Cars to Hit Public Roads Within 5 Years, Project’s Director Says

DETROIT (Detroit Free Press/TNS) -

Google is engineering and building driverless cars in partnership with metro Detroit suppliers, in a marriage of California tech and Motown know-how.

Pod-like prototypes for testing are being developed and assembled and will undergo testing at Google facilities in California in the spring — Google does not want to do testing in the snow.

The goal is to have driverless cars available on the market within five years, said Chris Urmson, director of Self-Driving Cars for Google.

The Wednesday announcement underscores Detroit’s growing place in the national consciousness as a home for tech startups and innovation. It also punctuates the increasing high-tech nature of the automobile industry, with Google, a multibillion-dollar internet search-engine company, now in the business of designing cars.

Urmson does not expect regulations to be a barrier. Driverless cars are allowed by law in many states, including Nevada, Florida, D.C., California and Michigan. Georgia decided it does not need to change its laws to allow autonomous driving, and Urmson thinks most states will reach the same conclusion.

Why Detroit?

“If you want to do something auto, it’s out here,” said Urmson, a Canadian from Vancouver who studied robotics and drives a bike to work.

“To say Silicon Valley is the only place where innovation happens is wrong,” said Urmson. “It is not a crusty Detroit/shiny Silicon Valley. Anyone who thinks that is crazy.”

Google equipped conventional cars for testing about six years ago, before deciding to make its own fleet for evaluation. The internet company announced in May it will build its own test fleet from the ground up.

A Roush facility in the Detroit suburb of Livonia is now making a more refined version of the first car announced last May, Urmson said in an interview ahead of a speech at the World Congress automotive conference in Detroit. “We’ve gone through a couple more generations,” he said. The handful of evaluation models even have real headlights now, he said.

A new batch of cars will soon be built as the test fleet grows to about 150.

Cost remains an issue — a remote sensing device using lasers called a Lidar costs $70,000 alone — but Urmson said Google has since developed its own smaller and less expensive Lidar device that it is testing on the prototypes. And if a single driverless car replaces two vehicles in a household, the cost might not seem as exorbitant when the car finally goes on sale.

“There is no ‘unobtainium,’ he says, in a Google car, which means the technology should come down in price.

Google is not doing this as an advertising ploy, Urmson said. The company is using its vast resources to address some societal problems such as safe transportation.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration supports the development of autonomous-driving technology as the means to the next leap in improving safety.

Google has been working with NHTSA and sharing data.