Here's something that irks Chris Urmson: Sometimes people will get in self-driving cars, the spectacularly complex piece of technology he runs at Google and to which he has devoted most of his scientific career, and leave with a shrug.
Once, Urmson was riding in one of Google's Lexus SUVs down a freeway. Several minutes in, his fellow passenger turned to him, nonplussed.
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Urmson, recalling the story on Google's Mountain View campus earlier this week, threw up his hands: "Do you have any idea how hard this is?!"
Soon, there may be many more blasé reactions to one of Google's most audacious moonshots. On Friday, the Internet giant announced that the first autonomous vehicle it has manufactured — a squat two-seater, unveiled a year ago, with no steering wheel or brakes — will begin rolling out on public roads in northern California this summer. Urmson and his team have assembled 25 of the cars, which, for now, are just called "prototypes." (Re/code has dubbed them "clown cars"; Google may be more partial to the "Koala car" nomenclature.) When they hit the roads, they will not exceed 25 miles per hour. And, due to current state regulations, they must be equipped with brakes, an accelerator pedal and a steering wheel.
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But ultimately, Google wants to strip those out.
The company's stated goal is shepherding fleets of vehicles that can drive with no need for human intervention, a bid to curtail the time wasted in traffic and aide those unable to drive. "At that point, the steering wheel and brake pedal just don't add value," Urmson said during the demonstration at the new Google X headquarters in Mountain View. "Over the last few years, we've been focused almost purely on tightening the technology. The big next step is bringing it into the community and seeing how it mixes with people."