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Google's Driverless Cars: Q & A

Engineer Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s self-driving car project, talks about navigating with no hands.

Engineer Chris Urmson next to a Google driverless car, image
Photo caption
Engineer Chris Urmson stands next to a Google driverless car.

Engineer Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s self-driving car project, talks about navigating with no hands.

Someday, possibly sooner than you think—when you're relaxing in your car with a powerful computer at the controls, you can thank engineer Chris Urmson. He’s the director of Google’s self-driving car project. About a dozen of the cars are now being tested on California roads, with the blessing of new state laws, and some may soon be seen in Nevada.

Q Steering, braking, parking—does the car really do everything? 
When you engage the self-driving mode, the car really drives for you. The technology is still in development, so for now we ask our operators to be attentive to what’s going on—in the cars and on the road.

We want to learn all we can from each test ride. That said, having the car drive in beautiful places, like the trip we took around Lake Tahoe, is a lot of fun. Eventually, people will be able to make much better use of their time in the car.

Q How long before most cars on the road drive themselves?
It will take some time, but it’s telling that even traditional automakers are looking at developing more autonomous features. Safety is a big motivator.

Q What about liability? Who’s responsible in a crash—the driver or the car?
These are important questions. Lawmakers are already working on proper legal and safety frameworks.

Q Can a car that’s smart enough to navigate by itself express road rage?
That’s the beauty of a self-driving car. It’s never erratic. It’s never tired or impatient. And when cars are driving more efficiently, hopefully there will be less road rage.

Q Did you grow up wanting to make cars that can drive themselves?
It wasn’t too much of a leap for me. I’ve always been curious. I built a lot of things, especially out of Legos. I remember being most proud of my transforming robots.

Photography courtesy of Google

This article was first published in July 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.