DETROIT -- Google Inc. and the auto industry are closer friends than one might think.
Chris Urmson, the director of Google's autonomous driving project, revealed at the Automotive News World Congress last week that Google is working closely with global suppliers such as Bosch and Continental to build the prototypes that it plans to begin testing on California roads this year.
He said Google also has initiated talks with most of the world's largest automakers to prepare for the day when Google sees mass production of self-driving cars for commercial uses. Urmson has set a goal of putting such a car on the road by the time his 11-year-old son starts driving -- likely around 2020.
"At some point, we're going to be looking to find partners to build complete vehicles and bring the technology to market," said Urmson, a former Carnegie Mellon University researcher. Asked when that might happen, he replied: "When [the technology] is safe and ready."
Google stunned the industry in 2009 by revealing its research into self-driving cars, which use sensors and software to guide them down the road while following laws, obeying traffic signals and avoiding obstacles such as cyclists and pedestrians.
Like autonomous vehicles being developed by automakers such as Mercedes-Benz and Nissan, Google's self-driving vehicle uses cameras, mid- and long-range radar and laser sensors known as lidar to watch the road.
During a discussion last week, Urmson said Google has internally developed a set of lidar sensors that are smaller and more effective than current models. The lidar sensors that Google buys from Silicon Valley technology firm Velodyne cost about $75,000 apiece, but Urmson said Google's sensors should achieve significant cost reduction.
"There's nothing unobtainium in there," Urmson said, using a term from the movie Avatar for a fictional substance that is incredibly rare and expensive. "We don't see [cost] as a big problem."
Urmson said Google might try to commercialize its technology by offering shared cars that can be summoned with a smartphone. He said private ownership also may make sense, giving an example of a family car that can drop off one person at work, then return and pick up the spouse or their children.
He said he does not foresee regulatory problems at the federal level. California has written rules for self-driving cars, but there are places in the U.S. where people can legally use them today.
The most important thing, Urmson added, is "making sure that it's socially acceptable."