Google wants autonomous vehicles on streets in 3-5 years

Posted by Thomas Anderson

Over the past few years, Google has been working to perfect its sophisticated autonomous vehicle technology.

At this stage, Google's autonomous tech allows the vehicle to operate itself between two specific locations without real-time input from a driver. Meaning, the driver can sit in the passenger seat while the car handles all of the actual driving.

Supporters of the technology, such as Google, say that autonomous vehicles would reduce the amount of traffic congestion and accidents on the roadways around the country. However, so far only a few states allow the operation of autonomous vehicles on highways. Among the states is Nevada, which approved driverless vehicles to operate on state highways last year.

Google is now predicting that vehicles using its driverless technology will be available to consumers in as little as 3 to 5 years.

"The improvement can be such that we can make cars that drive safer than people do," Anthony Levandowski, product manager for Google’s self-driving car technology, told a Society of Automotive Engineers meeting in Washington last week. "I can’t tell you you’ll be able to have a Google car in your garage next year. We expect to release the technology in the next five years. In what form it gets released is still to be determined."

While Google is bullish on autonomous driving technology, federal regulators have their doubts. Nevertheless, the government does recognize that self-driving technology could help significantly reduce the number of fatalities on roadways around the country.

Still, David Strickland, head of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, recently said that autonomous vehicles were "a long way off."

Of course, the big challenge ahead of Google is to figure out out a way to ensure that the software is reliable because a failure or error related to autonomous driving software could leave the vehicle without proper control.

"We’re really focusing on building in the reliability so we can trust and understand the system will perform safely in all conditions," Levandowski said. "How can you trust the system? How do you know how it can perform? How do you design it with proper processes in order to understand and minimize failure? How do you bake into a car redundant braking?"

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) also says that coming up with a system of rules and standards to govern minimum performance would have to be created. Plus, the agency would also need to learn how to test autonomous vehicles.

"It gets to be a massive challenge to figure out how will the government come up with a performance standard that is objective and testable for so many different scenarios where failure could possibly occur... Part of that has to do with if we should be looking at the underlying electronics," added Dan Smith, senior associate director for vehicle safety at the NHTSA.