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Driverless cars could be in market within five years: Google director at TED

A row of Google’s self-driving cars on the roads in Mountain View, Calif., on May 14, 2014.

Eric Risberg/The Associated Press

The head of Google's self-driving cars project says the company is forging ahead with the program – which may be available within less than five years.

"We've made some pretty exciting progress and at this point we're pretty convinced this technology is going to come to market," said Chris Urmson, director of self-driving cars, at Google during a TED talk delivered in Vancouver on Tuesday.

Urmson has headed the program, which does three million miles of testing in simulators every day, since 2009. And the vehicles have driven more than three quarters of a million miles.

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In his talk, Urmson, a robotocist, laid out why Google is going with a fully self-driving system rather than a driver-assisted model. The chief problem with the driver-assisted option, he says, are the drivers – whom he called the least reliable part of the car. He cited alarming statistics: 1.2 million people are killed on the world's roads every year; 33,000 in the U.S. alone. "That's the same as a 737 falling out of the sky every working day." Statistically, he said, 34 people had died in road accidents in the U.S. during the course of his talk.

In one test-drive example using Google employees in 2013, Urmson described one driver who was supposed to be paying attention during the experiment with the driver-assisted car. But the volunteer noticed that his phone battery was running low, and turned his attention to the back seat where he dug around to find his laptop and a charger – while the car was going down a freeway at 65 miles per hour.

"The better the technology gets, the less reliable the driver's going to get," says Urmson.

By contrast, he says Google's driverless car model is learning to detect and navigate through even unpredictable traffic obstacles – construction, a car making a U-turn, a cyclist running a red light, even a woman in an electric wheelchair chasing a duck in circles on the road.

Another factor in determining the superiority of the driverless model is the time Urmson says we waste at the wheel. With traffic getting worse, commute times are increasing. About six billion minutes are spent commuting every day, he said. "You take that six billion minutes and you divide it by the average life expectancy of the person, that turns out to be 162 lifetimes spent every day wasted just getting from A to B."

As for when the self-driving cars might be available, Urmson said he has an 11-and-a-half-year-old son who will be eligible for a driver's license in four and a half years.

"My team and I are committed to making sure that doesn't happen."

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