Google's self-driving car has left the freeway fast lane for the much more complicated obstacle course of city traffic.
After driving thousands of miles on the streets of Mountain View, the company said Monday its cars can now navigate through everyday driving situations that include traffic signals, curbs, pedestrians, cyclists and other hazards typically seen on city streets but not freeways.
But it will be a long time before you're buying self-driving cars from your favorite dealer. There are a host of unresolved regulatory issues, as well as the need for more rigorous testing.
"It's going to be many, many years before people trust those kinds of vehicles," said Brian Blau, research director for consumer technologies at the Gartner research firm. "But without companies like Google investing in the research and science behind it, we'll never get there. You have to take baby steps before you can walk. And you have to learn to walk before you can run. They're still in the learning-to-walk phase."
Google said the cars are progressing rapidly.
"As it turns out, what looks chaotic and random on a city street to the human eye is actually fairly predictable to a computer," Chris Urmson, Google's self-driving car project director, wrote in a company blog post.
"We've built software models of what to expect, from the likely (a car stopping at a red light) to the unlikely (blowing through it). We still have lots of problems to solve, including teaching the car to drive more streets in Mountain View before we tackle another town, but thousands of situations on city streets that would have stumped us two years ago can now be navigated autonomously," he said.
Mountain View police said they could not immediately say whether any Google self-driving cars had been involved in any accidents or given traffic citations.
Silicon Valley forecaster Paul Saffo said the future of driverless cars has already arrived.
Large mining operations in Australia now use gigantic driverless trucks, he said. And affordable consumer cars in the United States already park themselves and come equipped with an arsenal of anti-collision systems that automatically brake a car faster than a human driver can react.
"But when can I buy my autonomous vehicle?" Saffo asked. "That's trickier."
Saffo believes the first consumer-grade driverless cars will be expensive and carry the aura of "the Tesla effect in which the superrich will be the early adopters who will pay way too much for a robotic car because it's cool and they can very flamboyantly read their iPads and sit in their driverless cars making phone calls and doing work while everyone else is stuck in traffic."
In response to a question from this newspaper about what comes next for Google's driverless cars, the company said in an email, "We haven't made firm decisions about when and how we would like to make our technology available to consumers."
The driverless car program, launched in 2009, had logged 300,000 miles on about a dozen vehicles by August 2012, the last time the company gave an update on the program. The cars now have logged 700,000 miles.
Last month, the California Department of Motor Vehicles held a public hearing in Los Angeles aimed at developing regulations by the end of this year for driverless cars, which could set the tone for national policy. Three other states have rules governing driverless cars, according to The Associated Press, but those policies mostly focus on testing.
At the DMV's March hearing, some privacy experts chastised Google for pushing back against privacy guarantees when the Legislature passed a law in 2012 requiring rules on testing and public operation of driverless cars.
"How would Google monetize this?" Blau asked. "It's hard to see Google as a car company. But one of the main corporate missions of Google is to be the knowledge company. Imagine the amount of data Google could collect from driverless cars -- where they go and what they do."
But with the potential to efficiently move people in separate vehicles at high speeds, driverless cars could revolutionize the way people move around in large numbers, Saffo said.
"Anybody who hates traffic should like robotic cars," he said. "This is not about a robot driving your car. This is about a vast sweeping change in our transportation systems."
© 2014 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)