During a recent visit to Google HQ in California’s Mountain View campus, I got a glimpse of what the future of ‘undriving’ might look like.
I was given access to the team behind the search giant’s self-driving car programme. Part of Google X, the company’s the semi-secret research arm, the crew is usually hidden away from the public eye. I was there to find out what it takes to use this technology, and what it’s like to be a Google test driver; taking a backseat to the car’s computers even when sat behind the steering wheel.
It was an interesting time to observe just how ready driverless cars are for the road. Today, Google announced plans to start building its own vehicles, rather than relying on other manufacturers. So far, Google has fitted its driverless technology into existing cars, such as the Toyota Prius and Lexus RX450hs.
Yet Google’s own vehicles will be cute little city cars with smiling, non-threatening faces, and pedestrian friendly crash features. The company’s reasoning is that if its cars are going to be autonomous, they needn’t follow conventional designs.
Although Google’s new cars are designed to eventually dispense with steering wheels and pedals, at first Google wants to fit the cars with human-specific controls, which can be plugged in and layered on top of the autonomous controls, so that the cars can be safely tested on public roads. They will be very much like the vehicle I travelled in, which has a steering wheel and pedals in case the human driver needs to take over.
They may not touch the controls for the majority of a drive, but they still have to be here, still have to stay constantly alert, scanning the road, watching for mistakes made by their autonomous chauffeurs.
Ultimately, it’s a success if the journeys are as uneventful as possible. “During the ride, it’s OK if it’s boring, because that means it’s safe,” says Brian Torcellini, Google’s lead test driver and the man responsible for training other drivers not to drive. He has been with the team since 2009, and was one of the first autonomous car pilots.
Google’s current fleet – around a couple of dozen cars – lives at Google’s home base in Mountain View. The Google test drivers are not allowed to take them home. The early blue Toyota Prius vehicles have been replaced with bright white Lexus SUVs. They are easy to spot; they have a rather ungainly laser scanner on the roof, and the company’s logo in primary colours on the side.
“The drivers check in, just like everyone else would in the morning,” explains Torcellini. “They take the cars out, run some tests, and then they come back and drop the cars off and upload the data.”
Trained for extremes
Google’s drivers have to learn to let the machine do the driving – but they are also encouraged to be very cautious about the car’s abilities. If they ever feel in the slightest bit uncomfortable with the way the computer is driving, they are told to wrest control away immediately with a tap of a pedal or turn of the steering wheel. Engineers can then collect information from the computers, and extrapolate and simulate what the car would have done. The comparison between the hypothetical action and the human intervention can be used to help improve the car’s software.
Even though they’re supposed to be cautious, the drivers are also trained for the extremes. They take cars through their paces on slaloms and skidpans on a test track, to really experience how they perform at the limit. They are conditions that they’re very unlikely to encounter on the road, but the hope is that if they encounter ice, for instance, the computers will know how to react.
“Most of the driving we do isn’t drifting around cones,” says Torcellini, “but we feel like the best thing to do is to overtrain our folks.”
So what is it like to sit in a car being driven by a computer? There is certainly no sliding sideways around corners on the day I sat in the back of a Google SUV, one of the company’s first-generation vehicles complete with steering wheel .
It turns out that one of the car’s biggest challenges begins before it hits the road; the drivers have to take to the controls to negotiate our way out of the car park before we hear the soothing female tone of the “autodriving” announcement that tells us the computer is taking over.
‘History in the making’
“A lot of parking lots, in some ways, are even more complicated than public roads,” explains Alyssa, the safety driver. There are often no proper lane markings, and they are full of people walking in all directions and obstacles like shopping trolleys. It’s the kind of busy, hazard-heavy driving environment humans are instinctively able to process, but that might be less obvious to a computer.
The crew also helps refine the car’s software, by keeping a log of the driving experience, updated on a laptop from the passenger’s seat. “We’re constantly leaving comments about little things that we think could feel smoother or more human-like,” says Alyssa. Test drives are essential to get to the heart of how the journey feels, for the passengers and the people around. The objective is to make the car’s driving seem natural, to integrate well with other cars, and not feel jerky or hesitant.
The car accelerates at a fair pace, and copes with other traffic, cyclists, and pedestrians, when they appear, cameraphones poised, to get a snap of us whizzing by. Even in Silicon Valley, driverless cars get attention in a way that would make a Ferrari owner jealous – something the two drivers are by now are used to. “A lot of people do have the view that we have a really cool job – and we do!” says Loren. “This is history in the making, and it’s fantastic to be a part of it.”
Torcellini’s advice if you fancy a job driving a car with no steering wheel? “We are looking for people with good judgment,” he says. That can be hard to establish in just one sit-down interview so the recruitment process is multi-stage, and includes a driving interview. The process is tough, but if the company’s fleet expands as ambitiously as Google’s new announcement suggests, one thing is clear. There’s going to be a need for a lot more human test drivers before we have a world full of computer-controlled cars.