But even Google admits the technology still has a ways to go.
The question of when driverless cars will arrive is going to be easier for some cities to answer than others. In the United States, they're coming very soon to the cradle of American automobiles. Ann Arbor, Michigan, a hop-skip from Detroit, is getting set to launch M City—a 32-acre testing district for connected and driverless vehicle technology, with a formal open planned for July.
M City, on the North Campus of the University of Michigan, will feature all the makings of a typical urban area: from road networks to traffic signals to pedestrians to construction barriers. Previously the school operated a U.S. DOT-funded safety pilot that aimed to see whether connected vehicles could truly reduce car crashes. The idea with M City is to advance the technology to the point where an "automated mobility system" will be safe for a larger swath of southeast Michigan by 2021.
Across the pond, four British cities have beaten Ann Arbor to the punch. In December, the U.K. government announced that Greenwich, Milton Keynes, Coventry, and Bristol would operate official driverless car test districts beginning this month and running for 1.5 to 3 years. The concept here is not just to test the technology in real-world settings but to "allow the public to accept how the vehicles will fit into everyday life."
The BBC reports that the trial in Bristol will have a further focus on legal and insurance implications. The Greenwich trial will feature autonomous shuttles that resemble golf carts more than cars. But the combined Milton Keynes-Coventry district will include far more futuristic electric pods that can evidently be ordered by riders on-demand via their smartphones.
As for the world's most active driverless testing district—Mountain View, California, home to the Google car—there are some developments of note there, too. At the 94th annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board earlier this week, Chris Urmson, head of the company's self-driving car program, shared videos of Google's pod-like prototype wheeling around a test facility. Urmson said the prototype has successful navigated some tough real-world situations in recent months: interacting with the likes of cyclists, jaywalkers, and even cars in the process of running red lights.
Despite all the hype—most notably, the driverless car design recently released by Mercedes-Benz, so sleek it looks like a drop of mercury sliding atop a road—Urmson admits the technology still has a ways to go. To that end, he said at TRB, Google is currently designing redundancies into the prototype as a way of fortifying it against mechanical failure. If power is disconnected from one part of the steering rack, for instance, another control capable of doing the job will step in.
When asked by a member of the TRB audience whether Google was ready to go with its driverless prototype and merely waiting for regulators to get their act together, Urmson offered a declarative "no." The company has an "internal goal" of completing the car in five years, he said, but it won't be released until its safety is beyond question.
"We're not just kind of twiddling our thumbs," he said. "We have a lot of work to do on the technology side."