With its 12 vehicles, Google has the largest known test fleet of self-driving cars. All together, the Internet giant has covered over half a million kilometers (300,000 miles) in these robotic vehicles, most of it on California's public roads and highways. The cars have driven through Los Angeles, around Lake Tahoe and down the famous hairpin turns of San Francisco's Lombard Street. They have become so reliable, in fact, that Google is now taking SPIEGEL out for a demonstration.
Self-driving cars, long dismissed as a utopian pipe dream, are rapidly reaching the stage where they will be ready for the market. "We're not talking about 20 years here, but more like five," says Sebastian Thrun, initiator and director of Google's project.
Five years until the first driverless cars hit the streets? It sounds like just any of the other science-fiction ideas that seem to percolate out of the manically creative world that is Google headquarters. But could it be that the company is about to show the automobile industry what the future of mobility looks like?
In truth, however, the real surprise here is something else entirely: Everything Google can do, carmakers already do as well -- they just don't talk about it as openly. In one European Union-funded research project, Volvo successfully drove a convoy of five vehicles that only had a human driver in the lead car. BMW recently sent a robotic car on a two-hour drive from Munich to Nuremberg. And Volkswagen and a research team from Stanford University have caused a stir with their driverless Audi sports car, which that has been zipping around US racetracks.
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