Google wasn’t on the minds of many in the auto industry as recently as two years ago. Then, in 2010, the search giant revealed it had logged more than 140,000 miles on California roads surreptitiously testing a fleet of self-driving Toyota Prii.
Suddenly, industry insiders and pundits were speculating on Google’s endgame in the automotive industry. Would it be driverless taxis on the Las Vegas Strip, free ad-sponsored rides for Millennials who would rather text than drive, or even an entry into the auto market with Googlemobiles?
The entire time, Google said its intentions were altruistic; the primary goal was to diminish accidents and deaths caused by human error. Let data drive, the company’s autonomous-vehicle team argued, and we will see huge improvements to society in terms of lives saved and a reduction in wasted fuel and time by people sitting in traffic.
In a keynote address and interviews at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress at Cobo Center in Detroit last week, the product manager for Google’s self-driving car project, Anthony Levandowski, revealed the most information yet on his company’s intentions. Levandowski was quoted in The Detroit News as saying, “We don’t want to make cars. That’s not our interest.” But what, then, are those interests?
Along with Google’s long-stated goal (“Every year we don’t have this technology built, more people die,” Levandowski said in the keynote), the company announced that it wants to bring self-driving technology to market and that it already is in talks with major automakers. Levandowski said Google also is talking with automotive suppliers to find “partners that want to work with us.”
True to Google’s open-source philosophy, Levandowski said all options are open. “From giving the technology away to licensing it, to working with Tier Ones, Tier Twos, working with the OEMs, building a car with them,” he added, “everything is open and we’re trying to figure out which paths make the most sense. We’re talking to basically every car company to see what their level of excitement is and how to work with them.”
Speaking to several hundred automotive engineers, Levandowski acknowledged that skeptics have long scoffed that autonomous vehicles “have always been 10 years away.” But, he added, “I think it’s time for us to break that cycle and actually bring them to market sooner. I don’t think we need to wait 10 years for the next model to come out to build this technology.”
Some automakers agree, and are moving ahead with or without Google’s help. Cadillac recently showed its Super Cruise self-driving technology, which it says will be available in a few years. Audi has worked with Google autonomous-vehicle partner Stanford University and built an Audi TT that climbed Pikes Peak without a driver at the wheel. BMW has also shown similar technology.
One of the biggest hurdles Google and automakers face before robo-vehicles are ready for the road will be government regulations. Levandowski said he’s hopeful that autonomous driving technology will be “allowed as long as it’s safe.” Nevada already has a law on the books that makes it legal for self-driving vehicles to cruise public roads, within limits, and the California state legislature has a similar bill, now pending, that’s expected to pass.
And for those concerned that self-driving vehicle software crashes will lead to actual car crashes, Levandowski said that Google is “going to stand by our software products” and that the company will have the data to prove its vehicles are safe. He also said that Google wouldn’t wait for a government-mandated recall to fix problems and would have the power to deactivate its self-driving system remotely if anything goes awry. “We could control where and when it works,” he said.
And for those who fear that autonomous vehicles will kill the pleasure of driving, Levandowski stressed that Google doesn’t want to do away with human driving — just make it safer.
“We only want to drive cars when they are fun,” he said. At least he’s one of us.
Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to Edmunds.com. In 2008, he published his first book, “Car Audio for Dummies” (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.