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What it's like to ride in Google’s self-driving car

Several tech journalists took a backseat in the latest version of Google’s self-driving car, and the verdict is in. Turns out, it's kinda just like regular driving.

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Chris Urmson, director of Google's Self-Driving Car Project, stands in front of a self-driving car at the Computer History Museum after a presentation in Mountain View, California May 13, 2014.

Stephen Lam/FILE/REUTERS

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Safe. Smooth. Predictable. Uneventful. Sounds like words that would describe the vehicular capabilities of a minivan. But for journalists riding along with Google’s driverless cars on Tuesday, those words describe a ride along with the cutting edge of automobile technology.

“Generally speaking, the car drove conservatively, a bit like grandparents heading to church,” reflects Marco della Cava of USA Today.

Google invited several journalists to hop in the backseat of a driverless car on Monday, the first time the tech company has allowed media access to its autonomous automobiles. This comes just after Google’s announcement that the driverless cars have driven more than 700,000 miles on California roads. Ultimately, the journalists say the ride was almost boringly smooth, but navigating literal and institutional roadblocks in the future may make for a bumpier ride for the nascent technology.

The car took journalists on a 20-minute, pre-determined loop around the leafy suburb of Mountain View, Calif., where Google is headquartered and the majority of the self-driving miles have been driven. Google engineers accompanied the journalists and monitored the car's movements. Bloomberg Businessweek’s Brian Womack reports that the ride was quite cautious compared to most human drivers.

“It gave the Mini Cooper in front of us several car lengths of room, a distance most folks wouldn't give,” he writes. “The tester with Google, who accompanied me on the ride, said the car is more cautious around railroad tracks. After getting back onto Shoreline Boulevard, one of the main streets in the area, the car followed other vehicles at a more normal distance. And it slowed down when it came near a bicyclist on the right, before swinging out slightly to avoid the rider. When it comes to sharing the road, humans could learn a thing or two from this technology.”

“Maybe I was kidding myself, but from my vantage point in the back seat, I didn’t feel unsafe in the least,” adds Recode’s Liz Gannes. “The car braked for jaywalkers, paused when it was coming around a curve and couldn’t see whether the light in front of us was green or red, and skittered when it worried that a bus might be turning into our lane.”

Most reporters seemed more concerned about what lies ahead.

“My distinct impression was that the Google self-driving car is nowhere near ready for commercialization,” adds Ms. Gannes. “There are only two dozen Lexus test models in the entire fleet. There are only 2,000 total miles of roads that have been mapped with remote-sensing Lidar so they can be driven by Google’s cars.”

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She also points out that the real issue for driverless cars going forward is acclimating sensors to weather conditions outside of Google’s balmy California bubble. Google’s driverless car sensors have trouble in the rain, let alone snow, and are no better than humans when navigating foggy weather.

Della Cava pointed out that the car’s pre-determined route on pre-mapped streets provided no real on-road challenge for the driverless car.

“There seemed like little chance for drama,” he writes. “Mapping the entire U.S. roadway system in similarly reassuring detail will be a chore, but it is conceivable.”

Not to mention when there is a chance for drama, who is responsible in the case of an accident? The New York Times' Claire Cain Miller says it depends on the situation.

“In cases of parking or traffic tickets, the owner of the car would most likely be held responsible for paying the ticket, even if the car and not the owner broke the law,” she writes. “In the case of a crash that injures or kills someone, many parties would be likely to sue one another, but ultimately the car’s manufacturer, like Google or BMW, would probably be held responsible, at least for civil penalties.”

This being said, several journalists point out the jarring car accident statistics that largely hinge on human error. Traffic accidents account for 33,000 deaths per year in the US, and 90 percent of accidents that result in the death of a 4- to 34-year-olds are due to human error.

The New York Times John Markoff recalls when he first rode in a driverless car in 2005. While navigating a bumpy desert road in Arizona, the car sensors noticed a low-hanging branch and dramatically veered off course at 20 mph as the researcher scrambled for the emergency stop button. 

“Luckily, we landed in a large bush, and not the directly adjacent pile of rocks,” he says. “Boring is definitely a sign of progress.”


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