The First Look at How Google’s Self-Driving Car Handles City Streets

The first rule of riding in Google’s self-driving car, says Dmitri Dolgov, is not to compliment Google’s self-driving car. We’ve been cruising the streets of Mountain View for about ten minutes. Dolgov, the car’s software lead, is sitting shotgun. Brian Torcellini, the project’s lead test driver (read: “driver”), is sitting behind the wheel (yes, there is a wheel). He is doing no more to guide the vehicle than I’m doing from the backseat. I have just announced that so far the trip has been “amazingly smooth.”

“The car knows,” says Dolgov.

He means I have violated some code of robotic superstition, calling the contest too early. Or maybe he means my praise serves no function here. If I can tell how well the car is driving itself, so can the car.

Google’s self-driving car project began in 2009. The vehicle’s early life was confined almost entirely to California highways. Hundreds of thousands of test miles later, the car more or less has mastered the art — rather, the computer science — of staying in its lane and keeping its speed. So about a year and a half ago, Google’s team shifted focus from the predictable sweep of freeways to the unpredictable maze of city streets. I was invited along as the first journalist to witness how the car is handling its new urban lifestyle.

Over the next few minutes the autonomous vehicle makes several maneuvers that someone less privy to Dolgov’s first rule would have been tempted to compliment. We go through a yellow light, the car having calculated in a fraction of a second that stopping would have been more dangerous. We push past a nearby car waiting to merge into our lane, because our vehicle’s computer knows we have the right-of-way. We change into the right lane for a seemingly pointless reason until, a minute later, the car signals a right turn. We go the exact speed limit because maps the car consults tell it this road’s exact speed limit. The car identifies orange cones in the shoulder and we drift laterally in our lane, to give any road workers more space.

Between you and me: amazingly smooth.

Equally amazing is that people around us are going about their daily lives. I’d read that drivers tend to gawk at the Google car from their own cars, but that is not the case today. At one intersection I look at the cars flanking us. The driver to our right finds her cell phone more fascinating than we are; the driver to our left rests his head in his palm, and may or may not be falling asleep. There is a banality to vehicle autonomy in this place.

It can’t be that they’ve missed us. If the spinning bucket suspended by four metal arms on the roof doesn’t give us away, the words “Self-Driving Car” on the rear bumper should. We’re in a white Lexus RX 450H, part of a fleet of about two dozen prototypes, all of which now spend most of their time on surface streets. The bucket spins ten times a second, emitting 64 lasers that generate 3D information on objects all around us; the car also has radar that bounces 150 meters or so in every direction to perceive things a human driver never could. The Lexus’s interior is standard with the following exceptions: a camera facing out from the windshield capable of reading traffic lights, street signs, etc.; an ON and OFF button on the steering wheel to engage or disengage “auto” mode; a driver’s side display panel showing our speed and position; and a big red button on the wooden console — a kill switch they’ve never had to use.

“Every robot has a big red button,” says Dolgov.

Dolgov is holding a laptop running a map that effectively displays what the car is “seeing.” There is a comment box on the screen where he can record notes should something of interest occur during the ride. Right now he is not recording any notes. “Not much interesting stuff is happening,” he says. I had actually been promised ahead of time that “interesting things” would happen during the ride, so I could feel a bit misled at this moment. Except I’m riding in a car that’s driving itself through a city so amazingly smoothly that people around us are falling asleep.

In that sense this uninteresting ride feels profoundly, even unimaginably, interesting.

Via the Atlantic Cities

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