MOUNTAIN VIEW, California, USA -- Google has come so far so fast with its 5-year-old experiment in autonomous driving that members of the self-driving team are now speaking more confidently than ever before about the next phase of its ambitious research project: moving the technology out of tricked-out test vehicles and into real-world cars and trucks.
And yet, Google's self-driving car has never driven in the snow, gets puzzled by parking lots and cannot comprehend the hand signals from a traffic cop in an intersection.
For all its cameras, lasers and sensors, the car of the future still can't do all the things that human drivers can.
Nevertheless, Google executives talk regularly with multiple automakers about the technology, and they're thinking hard about the best way to deliver a product that makes driving safer and traffic jams less tedious, Christopher Urmson, the director of the self-driving cars project, told reporters during a rare media briefing last week near Google's corporate headquarters here.
"It has to be at a price point where the value to the customer exceeds the cost to the customer," Urmson said of the eventual product. "We're working on that."
In Google's eyes, the imperative is strong. Each year, more than 30,000 people die on U.S. roadways from accidents mostly caused by human error. Ron Medford, who was second in command at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before becoming director of safety for the self-driving cars project in 2012, said he expects autonomous cars to be one of the three biggest lifesavers in the history of auto safety, along with seat belts and electronic stability control.