RENO, Nev. (AP) — Anthony Levandowski is one tall dude.
Easily standing above 6 feet, the software engineer's towering stature belied a soft voice that occasionally revealed a geeky awkwardness as he spoke to hundreds at the recent Governor's Conference on Small Business in Reno in August.
Despite his lack of a salesman's silver tongue — or perhaps because of it — Levandowski had his audience's undivided attention. Perhaps it involved the reverence that came with playing a key role inside one of the biggest technology companies in history.
A product manager at Google, Levandowski's fingerprints can be found all over the wheel of the company's robotic car initiative. It's a program of special interest to Nevada.
Last year, the state became the first in the nation to regulate self-driving automobiles.
The distinction is a point of pride for Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who became the first governor to ride Google's self-driving car at the time. Sandoval hopes that the state's foresight will pay off for Nevadans in the form of increased business opportunities once the technology gets off the starting block and into the mainstream.
"I liken it to a popcorn machine and that machine is going to fill up as we diversify this region," Sandoval said, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal (http://on.rgj.com/1baIh0i). "It's not a news flash that we've gone through some tough economic times in Nevada. Economic development is the cornerstone for the state's efforts to improve the economy ... and create more jobs."
Nevada might not have to wait too long before the self-driving car is ready for prime time. Last year, Levandowski said the technology was about five years away.
At the Reno conference, Levandowski confirmed that Google's car project is right on track, with the technology expected to be available to consumers in less than four years.
It's an ambitious target even for a company with Google's technological muscle. Automakers such as Nissan and General Motors, for example, are aiming at 2020 for their autonomous driving technology. Unlike Google's more robust offering, General Motors' "Super Cruise" system is only partially self-driving.
To make its timeline, Google is banking on advances in processing power to help speed things up.
"Computers have progressed so much farther than the car has that in a few years, it will seem like the computer was invented before the car," Levandowski said. "Ten years from now, our lives will be so much different than it was 10 to 20 years ago because of all this computing power."
It also helps that other smart minds already have figured out some of the technologies required for a self-driving car — such as making the steering wheel turn autonomously, Levandowski said. The main challenge now is programming the car to think and make the right decision consistently in a real-world environment.
Currently, Google's self-driving car works by loading an assortment of maps and taking 3-D images of the world around it.
"What's really hard is (making the technology) understand, 'OK, there are people around me right now. Where are they standing? How much farther can I drive before I get there?' and doing that in a very reliable way so that you can trust it," Levandowski said.
Technology also is just one-third of the equation that must be solved before Google's self-driving car is ready for mass consumption. Another factor is cost, which remains prohibitive. The price tag for Google's self-driving equipment on Levandowski's demo vehicle rings up to $100,000 — twice the cost of the Lexus hybrid SUV on which it's built.
"A lot of that has to do with the fact that this is a prototype and the equipment and sensors that we use are artisan-made, which drives up the cost," Levandowski said.
Rounding out the equation for turning self-driving cars a reality for the public is government, particularly as it relates to regulations and infrastructure.
This part can be just as tricky as figuring out the technology because of its chicken-and-egg nature, Levandowski said. Without enough self-driving cars on the road, there isn't much incentive to work on infrastructure. Without infrastructure and regulations, however, momentum for self-driving cars also could stall.
That's why Nevada's decision to pass regulations for self-driving cars is a big deal, Levandowski said.
"In Nevada and Florida ... everything is in place," Levandowski said. "In California, they're going to come out with rules on Jan. 1, 2015. Federally, I don't know. It could be a long time, I think."
The stakes for the technology's success are high. A study by the University of California, Berkeley found that robotic technology theoretically can allow three times the number of cars on the same roads, freeing up highway budgets for other programs.
Besides allowing freed drivers to be more productive or granting disabled people more mobility, self-driving technology also can save lives. Analysis shows that 95 percent of vehicle accidents are caused by human error, Levandowski said. Worldwide, an estimated 1.5 million people die from car collisions, which simply is unacceptable when you can engineer the problem away, he added.
"Certainly, it's great fun to make robot cars drive around and help people get tacos," Levandowski said. "What we really want to do, though, is improve people's lives."
Hitching a ride
Though the idea has been around since the 1950s, self-driving cars are still exciting for Levandowski. He's keenly aware of how far the technology has come since he first tried to cook up a self-driving motorcycle, the "Ghostrider," as part of a 2005 contest by the military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
"I drive with the car to work every day to help me understand what works and what doesn't," Levandowski said. "I realized that the technology was driving better than I was, which was embarrassing, but also made me proud at the same time."
In the meantime, Nevada's bet on self-driving cars likely earned it some Google goodwill. After confessing that his team was pleasantly surprised about Sandoval's ride in the self-driving car last year, Levandowski was asked about the potential for a fleet of self-driving taxis in Las Vegas.
"I think Vegas would be a great place to showcase the technology and give people some safe rides," he said.
Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com