But Google is shooting for the moon.
The internet company, whose 2010 demonstration of driverless technology ignited wider interest in the car industry, is adamant about its all-or-nothing bet.
“It sounds quaint, I guess, but my team’s mission is to improve people’s lives by transforming mobility,” said Chris Urmson, head of the self-driving cars project at Google.
The stark contrast between Silicon Valley and the wider car industry has become clear in recent weeks as carmakers showed off their latest autonomous driving experiments.
“There’s a lot of really cool stuff, no doubt,” he said, listing Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Ford and General Motors as companies that have made headway. But he also called it “flawed” to see driver-assisted technology as a necessary point on the path to what Google has in mind: a fully autonomous car.
“The idea that it’s just a continuum, it’s not clear that it’s going to play out that way,” he said. “There actually is a discrete step when responsibility shifts from the driver to the . . . self-driving system.”
Google’s gamble that it can make the leap straight to full autonomous vehicles comes as Wall Street has become increasingly wary of the company’s expensive long-term bets. In a sign that it was starting to pay heed to investors’ concerns, a company executive last month said that a rethink of Glass, the company’s controversial smart-glasses project, showed that Google is prepared to draw in its horns when teams cannot hit their targets.