In Mountain View, Calif., nondescript white SUVs winding through the streets might appear ordinary, but a closer look inside shows that humans are not doing the driving -- the car is.
A product of Google's highly secretive research and development unit, Google X lab, Google's self-driving cars are now being tested on city streets. The cars themselves have to figure out how to share the road with pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles. On Tuesday, a few journalists -- including CNET's Sumi Das -- were able to take a test-ride.
"It's driving itself. But after about five minutes, everyone is like, 'Is that all it does?' It's just incredibly common once you get used to it," Chip Urmson, the director of Google's self-driving car project, said.
The company has been developing autonomous vehicles since 2009, and aims to make them available by 2017.
"Previously they had been really restricted to freeway conditions and now they're working in an actual city, which is a much more complex driving situation," Seth Rosenblatt, a senior writer at CNET, explained.
Using the latest sensing technology, the vehicle is able to detect every car, person and object in the immediate area.
In many ways, the cars handle the streets better than humans by avoiding other cars' blind-spots and shifting slightly in the lane to make room for cyclists, Das reports. However, the software in these vehicles is far from being ready to ship.
One specific issue Google's engineers are still struggling with: parking lots. With no lane lines and many cars shifting into reverse, it's a challenging environment for driverless cars to operate in safely.
Still, Google is racing to develop autonomous driving technology, facing competition from established car manufacturers, such as Audi, GM, Ford and Volvo.