Interestingly, in opposition to what most automakers have said about autonomous vehicles, Urmson stated that he did not anticipate regulatory hurdles to their introduction and is focused on making sure they are socially accepted. He feels that NHTSA does not consider itself a "permission-granting" authority -- with a former deputy administrator on the team, we guess he'd know -- but couldn't speak in detail about the legal wranglings or how self-driving cars are insured. Still, the exec is confident that self-driving cars could start rolling out in places in the US once they're safe enough. Those places probably won't include cold-weather climates, at least at first, since, in response to a question, he mentioned they haven't been tested in snowy environments yet.
When the prototypes roll out though, there will always be a driver in them; although it's testing empty vehicles at its facility, they're not ready to hit public roads yet. Another element is the LIDAR unit used to keep a 360-degree view of what's around the car, but Urmson said Google does not consider that a big hurdle, and is already testing cheaper, more capable prototype units than the usual $75,000 roof-mounted racks we've seen so far.
That also plays into the current design of the prototypes, which he said isn't final, but is friendlier than seeing the first self-driving car in your neighborhood appear as a big SUV. In a Q&A with reporters after his talk, Urmson said the test cars had racked up over 700,000 miles without an at-fault accident. That's despite being side-swiped on the freeway and a much publicized rear-ending that happened while an engineer (in control of the car) was distracted by someone taking a picture and rear-ended another car. The plan for the prototypes is to start testing in Northern California "later this year" and run small pilot tests over the next couple of years. Before that happens though, the leader of Google's self-driving car project said he is going to hit the Auto Show floor to check out the new Ford GT.