Google Self-Driving Car Will Be Ready Soon for Some, in Decades for Others

Google self-driving car project director, Chris Urmson, at SXSW.
Image: SXSW
Project director Chris Urmson now says a fully-featured Google self-driving car might be 30 years away.

If you're one of the millions of people pining to own a Google self-driving car, you better make yourself comfortable, because you may be in for a much longer wait than you ever expected.

Not only that: There's a distinct chance that once you get behind the wheel of the first commercial version of the Google car, it may not take you where you need to go.

In 2011, soon after Google first told the world about the robocars it had secretly been developing, it promised that the vehicles would be able to "drive anywhere a car can legally drive." Its timeframe for delivering the technology was generally understood to be in the neighborhood of five years. For example, in a 2014 Wall Street Journal article, project director Chris Urmson was quoted as saying he was hoping "to field a fully autonomous car" by the end of the decade.

But last week in a speech at Austin's South-by-Southwest, Urmson for the first time told a different story about both the delivery date and capabilities of its first self-driving cars.

Not only might it take much longer to arrive than the company has ever indicated—as long as 30 years, said Urmson—but the early commercial versions might well be limited to certain geographies and weather conditions. Self-driving cars are much easier to engineer for sunny weather and wide-open roads, and Urmson suggested the cars might be sold for those markets first.

Urmson put it this way in his speech. "How quickly can we get this into people's hands? If you read the papers, you see maybe it's three years, maybe it's thirty years. And I am here to tell you that honestly, it's a bit of both."

He went on to say, "this technology is almost certainly going to come out incrementally. We imagine we are going to find places where the weather is good, where the roads are easy to drive — the technology might come there first. And then once we have confidence with that, we will move to more challenging locations." [Urmson explains the projected rollout at about 28:00 in the video below.]

In an interview, a Google spokesman agreed that Urmson was describing some aspects of the project differently than the company had in the past. "Yes, there was some new stuff in there," the spokesman said. "That was obviously the intention of the speech: To say some new things."

But he took exception to the notion that Google was announcing any sort of delay, instead describing Urmson's new decades-long delivery window as an "expansion" of what he has said in the past. The spokesman also denied that Urmson's description of an incremental commercial roll-out represented any sort of strategic change.

In a later written statement, he said the company's basic goals for the program were unaltered: "We want to make fully self-driving vehicles available soon to as many people as possible given the potential benefits for road safety and for those whose mobility is limited by their inability to drive a car, but we’ll do it in a safe and thoughtful manner."

Others interpreted Urmson's speech differently. "This is the most conservative roadmap they have ever talked about publicly," says Edwin Olson, who researches self-driving cars at the University of Michigan.

Ian Grossman, a vice president of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which works with state DMVs, says Urmson's speech was the first time he had heard of the possibility of Google commercializing its cars in stages, rather than introducing the model the company initially described, a car that, like today's automobiles, can go essentially anywhere. "It's definitely an interesting new development," he says.

Any shift by Google in its self-driving car plans would be significant, because while there have been skeptics, much of the world has taken it for granted that the major technology challenges of fully computer-controlled vehicles have been worked out and that Google was on track to deliver them in the near future. A 2013 report by Morgan Stanley is one of scores that projected that full self-driving cars would be available by the end of the decade; Morgan Stanley said the new technology would eventually contribute $1.3 trillion in annual savings to the U.S. economy. The expectations are so high that lawmakers are now being urged to scrap support for mass transit programs, which, some argue, won't be needed in an era of ubiquitous self-driving cars.

Much of that optimism about self-driving car is the result of press coverage of the Google project. But Olson says those stories have not always conveyed the extent of the remaining technical challenges with the technology, which he describes as considerable, especially considering Google's clearly-stated ambition to develop a fully computerized car without either a steering wheel or brake pedal.

Google has, Olson says, "a super-abundance of optimism and enthusiasm for their vision. But the consequence is that they've projected the idea that this problem is going to be solved very soon."

Google is currently testing a pod-like car with a maximum speed limit of 40 kph. But that model has always been understood to be a research prototype that is a stepping stone towards the final goal of a fully-functional self-driving car.

The Google project got some unwelcome headlines last month when, for the first time, a Google car caused an accident—a minor, low-speed collision with a bus; there were no injuries and minimal property damage.

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