Lorenz of the Independent Living Resource Center
in San Francisco, who is blind, touches the
two-seater prototype of Google's self-driving car
at Google on May 13, 2015 in Mountain View, Calif.
VIEW, Calif. — After a year of testing its
bubble-shaped driverless cars on the empty roads of a
shuttered military base, Google is about to deploy its
fleet on the busy streets of Silicon Valley.
now, the cars must have safety drivers ready to grab the
wheel or hit the brakes if something goes wrong. But
self-driving software could soon move from test cars to
consumer vehicles as the California Department of Motor
Vehicles puts finishing touches this month on new
operational rules for autonomous cars, making it the
first government in the world to create a detailed
handbook for robots on the road.
goal is to create something safer than human
drivers," said Google co-founder Sergey Brin,
speaking this week as his company’s two-seater
prototype zoomed around a rooftop parking lot in
Mountain View. "And keep improving from
his engineering team’s major advancements in the past
six months in understanding a bicyclist’s hand signals
and other real-world scenarios, Brin stood by his
prediction that the technology is "still roughly on
track" for consumers boarding fully autonomous cars
by 2017. But a scholar advising the DMV on its new rules
believes a car that can safely navigate by itself
through crowded San Francisco streets is still
"many decades" away.
not going to be some sudden burst of new things that pop
onto the market as soon as the new regulations are out
there," said Steve Shladover of the University of
California, Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation
Studies. "The progress will be quite gradual and
Google, most of the companies with permits to test
self-driving cars in California — including
Mercedes-Benz, Delphi Labs, Tesla and Audi — are
aiming to advance and sell products that assist human
drivers rather than fully take over.
competing predictions, and varying degrees of robot
control, leave regulators with the challenge of
balancing the rules that are needed now — as the
technology still has unforeseen hiccups — with a
future when fully autonomous vehicles become more
is our very first time we’ve had to do something like
this, and not many states are in our situation,"
said Bernard Soriano, the DMV deputy director in charge
of drafting the new rules. "There are a lot of eyes
on what we’re doing."
draft rules — due several months ago — will be
released soon, Soriano said, and will be followed by a
public hearing this summer. Nevada, Michigan and Florida
also have established rules, but mostly for testing and
none as detailed as what California is preparing.
companies have had permission since September to
test-drive autonomous vehicles in the state. Even before
those rules were in place, Google had spent years
test-driving Lexus SUVs outfitted with self-driving
"in the next month or so," Google will be
launching its own 25 prototype cars onto Mountain View
public roads for test drives. They will be restricted to
neighborhood roads, with speeds capped at 25 miles per
public experiment is designed to see how the cars
interact with people, said Chris Urmson, who reports to
Brin as the head of Google’s self-driving car project.
cars have already spent a year navigating over potholes
and through obstacle courses, but this will be the first
time they will have to respond to pedestrians who aren’t
Google employees. Their movements through Mountain View
will be based not only on the car’s radars, lasers and
cameras, but also on a kind of memory — the car’s
software already contains a meticulously detailed map of
the city’s suburban streets.
Wednesday, Urmson’s team showcased the cars to a small
group of reporters, along with Mountain View residents
and people who are blind or disabled and are eager for
the day when a self-driving car can get them around.
make its vehicles safe, Google has made them
conservative. That means, for instance, that they are
programmed to wait for a second and a half before moving
through a green light.
caution can also make them jittery, causing the cars to
brake for perceived dangers that a human driver would
know to be harmless. A mingling crowd of onlookers on
the roof of Google’s garage was calculated to be a
threat, though to a human eye none showed signs of
also raises another concern: What if the cute car’s
cautious demeanor grates on impatient commuters in a
hurry to get to their Silicon Valley jobs?
been honked at a few times," Urmson said, speaking
of the Lexus SUVs that have been riding through the area
for years. "We’ve had people gesticulate, but
overall it’s been incredibly positive. We’d had more
thumbs up than fingers up."
STORY CAN END HERE)
engineers are also pleased with the car’s caution.
Believing that self-driving cars will make roads safer
and less congested, Urmson disagreed with Shladavor’s
prediction that the technology is still decades away.
an optimist, and it’s just too important," Urmson
said. "There are 90 people every day dying on
America’s roads. We should be impatient about this
AUTONOMOUS CAR CRASH RECORD
admitted this week that its self-driving cars have been
involved in 11 minor accidents on public streets in
recent years, all of them the fault of humans. Chris
Urmson, head of the company’s self-driving car
project, said Wednesday he was "incredibly
proud" of that record, given the number of miles
driven. While refusing to release the full accident
reports, he revealed some details about the crashes:
were rear-ended by a human-driven car.
were side-swiped on the highway.
was hit in an intersection by a car rolling through a
got into a fender-bender when a Google engineer was
driving the car to Best Buy.