What’s it like to be behind the wheel of a car with no wheel? Recently, Google invited journalists to find out for themselves by riding in its autonomous driving Lexus RX450 Hybrid and its Roush-built Google car.
Google has logged 1.2 million miles in the computer-controlled Lexus SUVs over the past few years. During that time, there have been a few accidents, but almost all of them have been caused by human drivers doing things like texting instead of paying attention. That’s precisely the reason for self-driving cars in the first place. Computers never go to sleep or let their attention wander. They never get tired or drive while under the influence of recreational drugs. A world full of self-driving cars would probably be a safer place.
Matt McFarland of the Washington Post took a ride in a converted Lexus, which has a large array of cameras and infrared sensor mounted on the roof. In fact, it looks exactly like a Soviet-era Sputnik spacecraft landed on it. Because the state of California requires that two safety engineers be in control of the car at all times, he sat in the back and watched while the information the sensors were reporting was displayed on the car’s touchscreen. The computer in charge of the autonomous driving functions is as large as a suitcase and is mounted in the cargo area in the rear.
McFarland reports the car proceeded slowly and deliberately while under computer control. At one point, it wasn’t sure what to do, so it came to a stop and parked briefly. At intersections, it was hesitant and easily confused by unexpected intrusions by pedestrians or other cars. The computers “understand their own limitations,” said Dmitri Dolgov, principal engineer on Google’s self-driving car project, at a briefing later. “They understand that there’s something really crazy going on and they might not be able to make really good, confident predictions about the future. So they take a very conservative approach.”
Overall, McFarland rated his experience a B+, knowing that the sensors and software were only going to get better in the future. Meanwhile, up on the roof of the GoogleX building, (It has a really big roof!) Henry Payne of the Detroit News was being driven around in a Google car, the cute little self-driving transport module designed by Google that doesn’t have an official name yet.
Google engineers told Payne the car looks so cute because it was designed from the ground up with round corners so the LIDAR sensors on the roof can see all around the car. “We wanted to re-imagine the car without the steering wheel,” says Lead Systems Engineer Jaime Waydo. “When we do that, we want to build a car that can see 360 degrees.” He says it helps members of the public feel comfortable with the car if it looks like a friendly character from a Smurf movie instead of an alien from Men In Black III.
Payne says the Google car navigated its way confidently around the rooftop test track, dealing easily with pedestrians and cross traffic. He says it was actually comforting that the car has no steering wheel, because in the Lexus, the wheel spins eerily as if it were under the control of poltergeists. By his second trip around, he had relaxed to the point where he felt comfortable checking his email on his smartphone and letting the car do what it does best.
Not only does the Google car have no steering wheel, it also has no throttle or brake pedal and no turn signal stalk. It has no dashboard, instruments, or center console. All it has is a green “Go” button. He reports his tester “was roomy with heated seats, a tasteful stitched vinyl interior, and luggage room where the dashboard and console used to be.”
Google cofounder Sergey Brin told the journalists the Google car will make driving safer, but will never replace the fun of driving. “There is a future for both worlds,” he says. “There’ll always be the pleasure of the open road.” But for the daily drudgery of metro commuting, the Google car’s technology will be a revolution.
Indeed, the prospect of safe, affordable, self-driving cars may presage precisely the kind of transportation revolution that Brin’s buddy, Elon Musk, is always talking about. Among other things, the Google car holds the promise of mobility for those who cannot drive an automobile themselves, like Brin’s mother, who is afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. Tesla’s technological tour de force, the Model X, would do his mother no good at all, even with its exotic falcon-wing doors.
Silicon Valley may be where the future of transportation is being made today, but when it comes to zero-emissions vehicles for the masses that will allow mankind to ditch fossil fuels forever, the real leadership is coming from Google’s campus in Mountain View, not from Tesla’s headquarters in Palo Alto.
Photo Credits: Google, Wikipedia