Google: No U.S. OK needed for self-driving test cars

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Google Inc. said Wednesday it doesn’t need approval from the U.S. auto safety agency to test fully autonomous self-driving cars, even as the search-engine giant acknowledged that autonomous cars won’t be foolproof.

Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car project, said the company plans to test a fleet of prototype fully autonomous vehicles without a steering wheel later this year, but that the company has no plans to compete with automakers.

The company has logged more than 700,000 miles of self-driving in retrofitted Lexus vehicles, but humans handle the driving in certain weather and at critical points, like getting onto highways.

“We’re definitely not in the business of making cars — just to be 100 percent clear,” Urmson said at the Automotive News World Congress. “We’re very excited to push the technology forward.”

He said the effort wasn’t aimed at getting vehicle occupants to look at more ads instead of driving.

Urmson said he believes it is legal in some states for Google to test autonomous cars that don’t have a steering wheel or brakes on U.S. roads. “We don’t actually think there is a regulatory block.

He said he doesn’t think Google needs the approval of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to proceed, though the company has been in regular talks with NHTSA. “They are not a permission-granting organization,” Urmson said. “NHTSA could certainly reactively ban it, but we don’t think that they need to grant permission.”

NHTSA said the Google vehicles must meet U.S. requirements — though if the Google test cars are “low-speed” vehicles they would face less restrictive U.S. requirements. Urmson said the test fleet will travel “at lower speeds to reduce the risk when something should go wrong.”

“Just like any car built for use on U.S. roads, any autonomous vehicle would need to meet applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards, which falls under NHTSA’s jurisdiction. The agency will have the appropriate policies and regulations in place to ensure the safety of these types of vehicles, said NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said before self-driving cars could be offered for sale they would need to be at least 10 times safer than human drivers. Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche has said they should be at least safer. Urmson said Google is working on similar metrics. “I don’t know what the number is,” Urmson said.

Asked if Americans will accept self-driving cars that make some mistakes, Urmson said it was a difficult question. “I think there will be failures of these vehicles,” Urmson said. “We accept today 33,000 people killed on the roads, but obviously there is challenging perception around risk.”

The auto safety agency is laying the groundwork for nationwide regulations if autonomous vehicles become commercially available. A number of states have sought input from the agency, which doesn’t want states setting their own safety requirements.

Driverless cars use video cameras, radar sensors, laser rangefinders and detailed maps to monitor road and driving conditions. Automated systems make corrections to keep the car in the lane, brake and accelerate to avoid accidents, and navigate.

Google said it has been working with a number of auto suppliers on its fleet of about 100 test self-driving cars. Google said it worked with Roush, RCO, ZF Lenksysteme, Continental, Bosch, Frimo, LG Electronics, Prefix and others to build fully autonomous vehicle prototypes — with Roush assembling them in its Metro Detroit offices. The company has also been in talks with numerous automakers about potentially building a future autonomous vehicle.

Google has had 700,000 miles of driverless testing in retrofitted Lexus vehicles and now plans to start testing later this year in new autonomous vehicles that don’t have a steering wheel or brake pedal.

M City taking shape

A Michigan testing site for connected and driverless cars that will simulate a cityscape is expected to be operational this spring.

Called “M City,” the 32-acre site is taking shape on the University of Michigan’s North Campus in Ann Arbor. Designed and built in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Transportation, roadway construction at the facility was completed in December. A formal opening is planned for July.

The site will include a network of roads with up to five lanes, intersections, roundabouts, roadway markings, traffic signs, signals and sidewalks. Also planned are bus facilities, benches, simulated buildings, streetlights, parked cars and obstacles.

Associated Press