In 2011, soon after Google first told the world about the robocars it had secretly been developing, it promised that the vehicles would be able to “drive anywhere a car can legally drive.” Its timeframe for delivering the technology was generally understood to be in the neighborhood of five years. For example, in a 2014 Wall Street Journal article, project director Chris Urmson was quoted as saying he was hoping “to field a fully autonomous car” by the end of the decade.
But last week in a speech at Austin’s South-by-Southwest, Urmson for the first time told a different story about both the delivery date and capabilities of its first self-driving cars.
Not only might it take much longer to arrive than the company has ever indicated—as long as 30 years, said Urmson—but the early commercial versions might well be limited to certain geographies and weather conditions. Self-driving cars are much easier to engineer for sunny weather and wide-open roads, and Urmson suggested the cars might be sold for those markets first.
Urmson put it this way in his speech. “How quickly can we get this into people’s hands? If you read the papers, you see maybe it’s three years, maybe it’s thirty years. And I am here to tell you that honestly, it’s a bit of both.”
He went on to say, “this technology is almost certainly going to come out incrementally. We imagine we are going to find places where the weather is good, where the roads are easy to drive — the technology might come there first. And then once we have confidence with that, we will move to more challenging locations.” [Urmson explains the projected rollout at about 28:00 in the video above.]