L.A. Auto Show: When can we expect our cars to drive themselves?

Self driving car
A man drives a Google Inc. self-driving car in front of the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
(David Paul Morris / Bloomberg)

When it comes to self-driving cars, Google and the auto industry can’t seem to agree on much.

Whether it’s about how self-driving cars will be rolled out or what they need to function, the tech giant and automakers are on polar opposite ends of the spectrum.

The auto industry thinks it could be 2025 before fully autonomous cars make it to market, said Jeff Klei, North America president of Continental AG,  a leading German auto and truck parts manufacturing company, at a Connected Car Expo panel Tuesday at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

He said autonomous cars will come out one step at a time. Partially autonomous cars could start hitting roads as early as 2016, but drivers won’t be able to completely leave the driving to their vehicles any time soon, Klei said.


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Meanwhile Ron Medford, Google’s director of safety for self-driving cars, said his company has no timetable for the release of its autonomous cars.

But when asked if the Silicon Valley giant is opposed to introducing its autonomous vehicle in phases, Medford was cryptic: “Google’s a company that has big ambitions” to “have big impacts on what’s happening in the world.”

Medford and Klei also disagreed on whether autonomous cars need to connect to the Internet and to each other in order to successfully drive on their own.


“In very complex driving environments -- many city environments, more congested environments where you have many different situations that could evolve -- we think you need more information than just the sensors on board,” he said.

But getting all the cars on the road connected is a huge task, and it could take a long time before enough cars are connected to make the cloud a viable source of traffic data, Medford  said. That’s why the Mountain View, Calif., company is working to ensure its car can drive on its own, relying on nothing more than on-board sensors.

“Google does not believe that we need to have connectivity in order to have full autonomy,” Medford said. “We can do it without it.”

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Google and the auto industry can agree that consumers need to temper their expectations for self-driving cars. Autonomous vehicles may prove to be safer than having humans drive, but accidents will still occur.

“Just like any environment, there will be accidents,” Klei said.

Google’s Medford said some accidents may occur when a driver smashes into a self-driving car. Others might be blamed on autonomous vehicles.

“People shouldn’t think that there will never be a crash,” Medford said. “You’re going to be much, much better than a human, but you’re not going to be absolutely perfect.”


Asked how Google and the auto industry get along, both sides were cordial and expressed their admiration for each others’ work.

“The important thing is we really appreciate what Google is doing,” Klei said. “We don’t always agree with everything, but I think it’s good for the industry.”