Google Inc's self-driving car technology likely will not be available for several more years. But the Internet company is already beginning the job of making the public comfortable with the futuristic vehicles.
A fleet of Google's robot cars ferried more than two dozen reporters around Mountain View, California, on Tuesday, in 30-minute ride-alongs that showcased their ability to automatically and safely navigate around city streets packed with cyclists, pedestrians and traffic signs.
The demonstrations, along with a morning of press briefings by Google managers developing the technology, marked the company's most concerted effort to date to provide an up-close look at the cars conceived five years ago in its secretive Google X division.
The public needs to understand that a self-driving car is "not something that you need to fear but something you need to embrace," said Ron Medford, a former National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration official who is now director of safety for Google's self-driving car project.
"We do find that when people experience it, we get remarkable results and responses," Medford said at the event at the Computer History Museum, during which Google explained the technology that makes the cars work.
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin tout the driverless car as revolutionary technology that could eventually sharply reduce fatalities on the road. But it remains to be seen whether it's ready for widespread use.
Lately, some of Google's ambitious "moonshot" projects have stirred unease. Google Glass, a postage stamp-sized computer screen that attaches to eyeglass frames and is capable of recording video, has raised privacy concerns.
For self-driving cars, consumer acceptance and regulation may be as much issues as perfecting the technology.
Google will not say whether it will build its own cars or license the technology to automakers, nor will it provide a firm date for when the cars will be available. Co-founder Brin has said the technology could be available by 2017.
It would be hard to mistake the gold Lexus RX 450h cars that Google has converted into self-driving prototypes for normal cars, primarily because of the roof-mounted laser sensor that revolves 10 times a second, gathering a 360-degree view of the car's surroundings.
Other drivers who spot the self-driving car often swerve in front of it and tap on their brakes, hoping to gauge the Google car's reaction, according to the two Google staffers in the car's front seats. Another favorite involves car drivers waving their hands in the