Google: Driverless cars are mastering city streets

LOS ANGELES — Google says that cars it has programmed to drive themselves have started to master the navigation of city streets and the challenges they bring, from jaywalkers to weaving bicyclists — a critical milestone for any commercially available self-driving car technology.

Despite the progress over the past year, the cars have plenty of learning to do before 2017, when the Silicon Valley tech giant hopes to get the technology to the public.

None of the traditional automakers has been so bullish. Instead, they have rolled out features incrementally, including technology that brakes and accelerates in stop-and-go traffic or keeps cars in their lanes.

“I think the Google technology is great stuff. But I just don’t see a quick pathway to the market,” said David Alexander, a senior analyst with Navigant Research who specializes in autonomous vehicles.

His projection is that self-driving cars will not be commercial available until 2025.

Google’s self-driving cars already can navigate freeways comfortably, albeit with a driver ready to take control. In a new blog post, the project’s leader said test cars now can handle thousands of urban situations that would have stumped them a year or two ago.

“We’re growing more optimistic that we’re heading toward an achievable goal — a vehicle that operates fully without human intervention,” project director Chris Urmson wrote. The benefits would include fewer accidents, since in principle machines can drive more safely than people.

Urmson’s post was the company’s first official update since 2012 on a project that is part of the company’s secretive Google X lab.

In initial iterations, human drivers would be expected to take control if the computer fails. The promise is that, eventually, there would be no need for a driver. Passengers could read, daydream, even sleep — or work — while the car drives.

That day is still years away, cautioned Navigant’s Alexander.

He noted that Google’s retrofitted Lexus RX450H SUVs have a small tower on their roofs that uses lasers to map the surrounding area. Automakers want to hide that technology in a car’s existing shape, he said. And even once cars are better than humans at driving, it will still take several years to get the technology from development to large-scale production.

Google has not said how it plans to market the technology. Options include collaborating with major carmakers or giving away the software, as the company did with its Android operating system. While Google has the balance sheet to invest in making cars, that is unlikely.

For now, Google is focused on the predictably common tasks of city driving.

To deal with cyclists, engineers have taught the software to predict likely behavior based on thousands of encounters during the approximately 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) the cars have driven autonomously on city streets, according to Google spokeswoman Courtney Hohne. The software plots the car’s path accordingly — then reacts if something unexpected happens.

Before recent breakthroughs, Google had contemplated mapping all the world’s stop signs. Now the technology can read stop signs, including those held in the hands of school crossing guards, Hohne said.

While the car knows to stop, just when to start again is still a challenge, partly because the cars are programmed to drive defensively. At a four-way stop, Google’s cars have been known to wait in place as other cars edge out into the intersection.

The cars still need human help with other problems. Among them, understanding the gestures that drivers give one another to signal it’s OK to merge or change lanes, turning right on red and driving in rain or fog (which requires more sophisticated sensors).

To date, Google’s cars have gone about 700,000 miles (1,126,000 kilometers) in self-driving mode, the vast majority on freeways, the company said.

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