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Google to Auto Industry: Let the Data Drive

Search giant reveals autonomous-vehicle endgame: To become an automotive supplier.

By Douglas Newcomb Apr 30, 2012 3:23AM

Google self-driving Prius. Photo by Google.Google wasn’t on the minds of many in the auto industry as recently as two years ago. Then, in 2010, the search giant revealed it had logged more than 140,000 miles on California roads surreptitiously testing a fleet of self-driving Toyota Prii.

Suddenly, industry insiders and pundits were speculating on Google’s endgame in the automotive industry. Would it be driverless taxis on the Las Vegas Strip, free ad-sponsored rides for Millennials who would rather text than drive, or even an entry into the auto market with Googlemobiles?

The entire time, Google said its intentions were altruistic; the primary goal was to diminish accidents and deaths caused by human error. Let data drive, the company’s autonomous-vehicle team argued, and we will see huge improvements to society in terms of lives saved and a reduction in wasted fuel and time by people sitting in traffic.

In a keynote address and interviews at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress at Cobo Center in Detroit last week, the product manager for Google’s self-driving car project, Anthony Levandowski, revealed the most information yet on his company’s intentions. Levandowski was quoted in The Detroit News as saying, “We don’t want to make cars. That’s not our interest.” But what, then, are those interests?

Along with Google’s long-stated goal (“Every year we don’t have this technology built, more people die,” Levandowski said in the keynote), the company announced that it wants to bring self-driving technology to market and that it already is in talks with major automakers. Levandowski said Google also is talking with automotive suppliers to find “partners that want to work with us.”

True to Google's open-source philosophy, Levandowski said all options are open. “From giving the technology away to licensing it, to working with Tier Ones, Tier Twos, working with the OEMs, building a car with them,” he added, “everything is open and we’re trying to figure out which paths make the most sense. We’re talking to basically every car company to see what their level of excitement is and how to work with them.”

Speaking to several hundred automotive engineers, Levandowski acknowledged that skeptics have long scoffed that autonomous vehicles “have always been 10 years away.” But, he added, “I think it’s time for us to break that cycle and actually bring them to market sooner. I don’t think we need to wait 10 years for the next model to come out to build this technology.”

Some automakers agree, and are moving ahead with or without Google’s help. Cadillac recently showed its Super Cruise self-driving technology, which it says will be available in a few years. Audi has worked with Google autonomous-vehicle partner Stanford University and built an Audi TT that climbed Pikes Peak without a driver at the wheel. BMW has also shown similar technology.

One of the biggest hurdles Google and automakers face before robo-vehicles are ready for the road will be government regulations. Levandowski said he’s hopeful that autonomous driving technology will be “allowed as long as it’s safe.” Nevada already has a law on the books that makes it legal for self-driving vehicles to cruise public roads, within limits, and the California state legislature has a similar bill, now pending, that’s expected to pass.

And for those concerned that self-driving vehicle software crashes will lead to actual car crashes, Levandowski said that Google is “going to stand by our software products” and that the company will have the data to prove its vehicles are safe. He also said that Google wouldn’t wait for a government-mandated recall to fix problems and would have the power to deactivate its self-driving system remotely if anything goes awry. “We could control where and when it works,” he said.

And for those who fear that autonomous vehicles will kill the pleasure of driving, Levandowski stressed that Google doesn’t want to do away with human driving -- just make it safer.

“We only want to drive cars when they are fun,” he said. At least he’s one of us.

Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.

May 1, 2012 5:15AM
They will pry the gearshift out of my cold, dead hands.
Mine too. The only way I will ever stop driving by myself is if I die.
May 1, 2012 12:25AM
IT IS going to happen whether you like it or not

You're right, it is and I will continue to drive my own vehicle. Driving is an enjoyable activity to me, in which I take full care and responsible acts. I don't stare at scenery, drink, smoke, text, call or do any other various act while I am behind the wheel. The wheel, stick and the occasional use of a volume nob is about all that occurs.


No matter what system you put it in place, accidents WILL happen, it is a part of life. The only way to guarentee that no accidents ever occur would be to drastically reduce the number of drivers on the road, making it so that no driver ever encounters each other, or very rarely does. This system will have glitches, errors and other various problems with it that will ultimately lead to the loss of life. I truly wish we could eliminate all deaths from automobiles but you're never going to achieve that goal.


It would be wiser to invest the money into better driving education and better safety systems. Develop a safety technology that can withstand the impact traveling 70 MPH and then you will have found a way to, possibly, eliminate automobile death.

Apr 30, 2012 6:05AM
A self drving car is called a train. They will pry the gearshift out of my cold, dead hands.
May 1, 2012 5:08AM
Like I said Jeff,  If the data PROVES that it will save lives, YES, we need to do it. It's a no brainer. The car is not going to get intoxicated, drive under the influence of drugs, put it's make up on while driving, text while driving, get distracted from things like scenery, I could go on and on.
No, but the software will crash and it will also have bugs. And then you and anyone travelling with you will be dead.

Even if we considered an ideal case where the software was perfectly stable and had no bugs, all it takes is an electromagnetic storm of charged particles from our Sun to make the electronics go haywire, causing bit flips and what the computer industry commonly refers to as "bit rot".

How about toughening up the requirements for driver education instead? For example, we could start with the requirement that all new drivers must

1. pass a first aid course
2. have to have a minimum of 30 hours with a professional driving instructor
3. have to pass the driving portion of the exam with a commission present in the vehicle
4. have to learn on a manual transmission vehicle.
Apr 30, 2012 10:14AM
frostyross - what part of train don't you get? You are willing to put your life or your daughter's in the hands of "technology"?  The same systems that bring you unintended acceleration, or any myriad of possible failures brought on by making cars more and more complex? That one little relay fails and . . . The more complex the system, the greater the chance for failure. Look at the cost as well. A train is cheaper and it is technology that is here now. Oh right, you would have to go to pre-determined stops, just like all of Europe, instead of going exactly where you want to go.  You miss the point completely. Computer's driving our cars is not the answer. It's time to take responsibility and improve our laughable driver's education and training. Spend a quarter of the amount of money for these overcomplex systems on proper training for driving (which is a priviledge not a right) and traffic related accidents will decline.
May 1, 2012 9:34AM
All the more reason to hang onto your vehicle or even pick up a classic car or two.  I don't know of any '67 Mustangs that can drive themselves, do you?

The only upside to this is that when one of these supposedly autonomous cars collide with me, I'll not only be able to sue the other driver, I'll be able to sue the car manufacturer and Google which have FAR deeper pockets than any driver.  After all, the Google guy said they'd stand behind the product!  I think there is a big payday waiting out there. 

Apr 30, 2012 12:54PM
Like I said Jeff,  If the data PROVES that it will save lives, YES, we need to do it. It's a no brainer. The car is not going to get intoxicated, drive under the influence of drugs, put it's make up on while driving, text while driving, get distracted from things like scenery, I could go on and on.
  You write about cost, what is your life or the life of a loved one worth to you? Priceless is my answer.
  The tech is not going to come out and force you to certain stops, as you reference. You will program your destination and/or take control once close to your destination.
  Thumbs down people obviously have not lost a loved one to human stubbornness or stupidity. Like I said, get used to the idea, IT IS going to happen whether you like it or not.
  Planes fly using technology every day and they are safer to travel on than in your car. HUMAN error causes most plane crashes so yes, I am willing to put my life in the hands of technology and take it out of the hands of stupid, distracted human drivers.
  You guys can hate this idea all that you want but you will be using it soon and lives will be saved.
  Open your mind up a little. No cost is too great if this technology will save many lives. I have a family member and two friends that would still be alive right now if it weren't for some idiot behind the wheel. Education will not work. Are you going to set an IQ number to pass a drivers test? No? Then education will not work.

Apr 30, 2012 9:41AM
People better get used to this idea, it's coming very soon, like it or not. If technology and testing prove that it saves a lot of lives, your not wanting to accept it just makes you selfish and inconsiderate.
  Maybe it will take you losing your daughter or wife to a senseless accident before you can see the light. OR, maybe it will be you, and they WILL be prying your cold, dead hands from the stick shift.
  Once there are enough of these new vehicles on the road, you can bet there will be legislation put into effect that will fine you heavily if you cause an accident with human error when it could have been avoided by letting the car do the driving.
  Don't worry, there will be plenty of places for you to get your "vehicle control" fix.

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