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The robo-car revolution hits Mountain View streets

Google seeks public input on its new self-driving fleet

A question kept ringing through my mind as I took my first ride Monday in one of Google's prototype self-driving cars -- Is this newfangled robo-car a better driver than I am?

I thought about taking my driver's test many years ago at the Los Gatos DMV, my hands nervously gripping the steering wheel of my mom's cumbersome Ford Aerostar while a heavyset bureaucrat checked off my mistakes. I didn't scan my mirrors frequently enough; one of my turns went a little wide; I hesitated to remember my turn signals.

Nevertheless, I passed and became a newly minted American motorist -- one who still remains alive to drive another day despite my share of errors.

Many aren't so fortunate: Each year approximately 30,000 people are killed due to roadway crashes, the equivalent of a 737 airplane falling from the sky every four days. These grisly numbers are fresh in my head because they come up eventually in most conversations with a Google spokesperson while talking about the autonomous-vehicle program.

They bring up the crash statistics to make a fair argument. If human mistakes are to blame for all those fatalities, then isn't it worth trying to design a system that will never lapse in judgment? Wouldn't the nation's roads be safer if all cars were scripted to abide flawlessly by the DMV handbook?

That autonomous car revolution still remains far off, but it is inching closer by the day, and its crucible is the streets of Mountain View. The Google team, which has already logged roughly 1 million miles on local roads, announced it would begin ramping up its testing this week with a new line of 25 custom-built prototypes navigating around the city.

To mark the occasion, the Google team invited the Voice to take a spin and see its automated cars in action. We met Monday at the Google X campus off Mayfield Avenue and proceeded to pile into one of the older Lexus prototypes, which the company has been testing along local streets for about a year and a half. We weren't getting a ride in one of Google's new custom-built car because, with only two seats, those models were too small to fit the five of us: me, my photographer and three Google team members. The differences were minimal since both models featured essentially the same software and sensor array, we were told.

With everyone seated, the car's feminine voice intoned "auto-driving", and the ghost of an unseen algorithm began turning the steering wheel on its own, maneuvering us out of the parking lot with unnatural grace and the cautiousness of a brake-happy grandma.

Sitting in the front seat, program manager Shyan Izadian showed a visual display of the car's computer brain running on his laptop. Outfitted with more than a hundred sensors, including lidar, lasers and cameras, the car's computer had a panopticon-like vantage of everything in its immediate vicinity. The program visualized everything in crude vector graphics resembling a 1980s arcade game, showing a cyclist as a blocky red polygon, and a pedestrian as a yellow box.

If anything, it seemed safe almost to a fault. I wasn't sure if the car ever reached 25 mph, the top speed for the new phase of street testing. At any point of confusion, the car by default came to a soft halt. A parked car that jutted out a little into the street? Brake. A long tree branch drooping into the street? Brake. Like something straight out of a driver's-ed class, a child's ball even bounced in front of our car as we were passing Thaddeus Park. Sure enough, the car braked.

Our short joyride left me with little doubt that the Google car would pass, or maybe even ace, a standard DMV driving test. That's not to say I'd want to drive behind one if I was in a hurry. Perhaps to comfort my own ego, I began racking my memory to think of a time when being a leadfoot driver was safer, if not just more fun.

Obviously, the Google design team is emphasizing safety as a top priority at this phase, explained spokeswoman Maggie Shiels. There was simply no way to anticipate everything that could happen on the road. She cited one famous incident when one of their self-driving cars encountered a woman in a wheelchair armed with a broom who was chasing a duck down the middle of the street. Even a human driver is frequently baffled by these kinds of situations, she said.

"You could sit in a conference room and never come up with these kind of scenarios," Shiels explained. "The important thing is this is a car that never falls asleep, loses its attention or has a hangover."

Coming to our first traffic signal at Rengstorff Avenue, the car obediently waited at the red light like other drivers. As the light turned green, the car waited a few seconds then cautiously crept out into the intersection for a left turn. The car zipped us back to the Google parking lot, taking its final curve a little too sharply and bumping its rear tire on the curb.

Admittedly, some kinks are still being worked out. Google program manager Greg Hanabusa showed how he could take manual control of the vehicle at any time by fiddling with the pedals or steering wheel, in accordance with current state DMV rules.

Walking into the Google campus, we were led over to one of the new two-seater prototype cars, which bears a striking resemblance to a koala bear, and will hit the road this week. Systems engineer Jaime Waydo, who previously worked on the NASA Mars Rover project, described how the new model was designed from the ground up, jettisoning accessories unnecessary for a car that steers itself.

Sitting in the driver's seat, it felt at first like burglars had stripped the car of its parts. There was no steering wheel, no pedals or mirrors and all the car's controls were all located on the center console between the two seats. Driving would only require pressing the console's prominent green button, and entering a designation into your smartphone, or perhaps in future versions, just saying it out loud, she explained.

Pressing the same button while en route instructs the car to immediately find parking. The other controls were fairly standard (windows, locks), except for a tech support button that immediately phones someone at Google for help.

When the prototypes start driving around Mountain View, they'll be equipped with steering wheels, Shiels said.

The final event in our whistle-stop tour was a chance to speak with Chris Urmson, the lead visionary of Google's self-driving car effort. For more than a decade, Urmson has been tinkering with the ideas and challenges of autonomous vehicles. As a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, he participated in the U.S. Department of Defense's 2004 Grand Challenge, which set the goal to design a self-driving vehicle that could travel 150 miles. None of the robot vehicles completed the journey, although Urmson's team made it the farthest -- 11.7 miles -- at which point their vehicle drove through a couple fence posts and got stuck on a rock.

"The media kind of crucified everyone involved: 'You only went 11 out of 150 miles!" he said. "There's always been this challenge of getting this complex system to work, and the hardest thing is always to understand the world around the vehicle."

But after that humble beginning, the technology evolved by leaps and bounds, Urmson said. At the next Grand Challenge in 2005, five teams including Urmson's were able to complete the course. Later contests challenged participants to design autonomous vehicles that could maneuver around moving obstacles, obey traffic signs and stay on the right side of the road.

It is getting very close to the point where a consumer model would be ready for production, Urmson said, although he couldn't specify how much longer that would take. He is setting a personal goal to have a self-driving car available for consumers before his 11-year-old son reaches driving age.

Recently in online discussions, many people have wondered what a self-driving car would do in an dilemma like the classic trolly-car problem. In that scenario, a trolly car is barreling down the road and going to kill five people, and the operator must choose whether to divert the car and saving those five people, at the cost of killing another bystander.

Urmson gave assurances that scripting how a self-driving car would function wasn't much different than the snap judgments drivers routinely are forced to make on the road. The best precaution his team could make was to avoid no-win situations, he said. Outside of that, it was matter of minimizing the crash outcome, he explained. The self-driving computer would put a priority on avoiding hitting cyclists and pedestrians, whereas a slightly lower priority would be given to dodging other cars or static objects.

"People have been arguing about the (trolley) problem. Since there's no right answer, we have to frame it in a way so we have a viable solution," he said. "If it's on the road, it'll be incredibly safe, but it will be fallible and other people on the road will make mistakes as well."

Citing the high number of people killed on the roads, Urmson expressed complete confidence that a robotic system would ultimately be a vast safety improvement over human drivers. For now, his team is intently studying how human drivers, cyclists and pedestrians react to their new cars. Stickers on the back of all the new Google cars encourage passersby to give comments on a new website. The early response from Mountain View residents at this phase will play an integral role in how the cars are further developed.

I asked Urmson what message he'd like to get out to the locals. Mountain View is home for Google, and being part of the local community was extremely important, he said.

"There's huge potential for this technology, but if it doesn't land right ... it won't get adopted and we won't have these society benefits," Urmson said. "The whole spirit of what we've tried to develop here is something that should fit into the wider community."

Related story:

Google launches city-wide art contest for new self-driving cars

Comments

28 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of another community
on Jun 25, 2015 at 12:23 pm

I applaud Google for being one of the trailblazers in this potentially wonderful development for personal transportation. I also appreciate the fact that Google is putting safety first.

I loathe driving myself; one day, I hope to be able to benefit from this technology.


5 people like this
Posted by pedestrian
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jun 25, 2015 at 2:02 pm

"There was no steering wheel, no pedals or mirrors and all the car's controls were all located on the center console between the two seats." Did CA DMV laws change? I think this is still illegal to have a car with no steering wheel, pedals (or acceptable equivalent) on public streets. I thought all had to be able to be driven by a licensed driver still.
To google: One big mistake I have seen your cars make recently that can cause an accident is how it handles detours and constructions zones, heavy traffic, right turns. In the first, it went around without understanding the rules (too fast) and in the others, it waits way too long that confuses other drivers and then irritates them.


3 people like this
Posted by Driver_8
a resident of North Bayshore
on Jun 25, 2015 at 2:24 pm

The no steering wheel cars were prototypes displayed on the campus, not the car they rode in.


5 people like this
Posted by mom
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jun 25, 2015 at 2:30 pm

It's funny when the self-driving car puts their blinker on to go around a curve...


7 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jun 25, 2015 at 2:49 pm

@pedestrian -

"One big mistake I have seen your cars make"

The cars you see around Mountain View are often not in self-driving mode.


11 people like this
Posted by konrad M. Sosnow
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jun 25, 2015 at 3:38 pm

I think that we have top remember that the Wright Brothers' first flight was only 12 seconds and covered 120 feet, a long way from today's Dreamliner. Today's Google cars are early in the evolution but have a huge potential.


13 people like this
Posted by Hmm
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jun 25, 2015 at 3:50 pm

No thanks, I love to drive.


9 people like this
Posted by Marsupial
a resident of Rex Manor
on Jun 25, 2015 at 3:58 pm

A koala isn't a bear.


5 people like this
Posted by @Monta Loma
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jun 25, 2015 at 4:23 pm

You mean drive BADLY, don't you?


7 people like this
Posted by pedestrian
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jun 26, 2015 at 9:26 am

Clarification: I have seen it drive when the driver was not paying attention (looking down and sideways at something). there was a worker with a sign asking cars to stop because the other side of the street was blocked and he needed to let those cars through, but he was not blocking the lane. the google car cannot read his sign or intentions and went without slowing against his orders through. Understanding changes in road conditions and auxiliary commands will be hard to handle. But I do have to say they are better drivers than many of the police cars in Mountain View


5 people like this
Posted by 4-way stops
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jun 26, 2015 at 9:48 am

I got stuck at a 4-way stop (ie, intersection with no traffic lights and stop signs at all 4 corners) with a google SDcar this morning and the poor thing could not figure out what to do.

It was the SDcar's turn to cross, but it just stopped. I waited a bit but the humans in the car just stared at me. I waved them through... no response. Eventually I went through the intersection, though it wasn't my turn. Clearly some challenges with regard to interacting with human drivers. Hope the SDC isn't still sitting at that stop sign...


6 people like this
Posted by Rodger
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jun 26, 2015 at 10:38 am

I wish Google and others would begin selling these self driving cars soon, I plan to be one of the first to buy one.


4 people like this
Posted by PA resident
a resident of another community
on Jun 26, 2015 at 12:12 pm

I was involved in a fender bender today with a driver not paying attention and admitted his fault. It made a mess of my day. Hope these safe self driving cars start making the roads safer soon.


5 people like this
Posted by Doug Pearson
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jun 26, 2015 at 7:07 pm

Doug Pearson is a registered user.

My wife and I have had only one car between the two of us for many years. I stopped driving about 7 years ago after my last accident but I still ride--driven by my wife, a VTA bus driver, an Airport shuttle driver, a CalTrain engineer, etc.

I look forward to self-driving cars; perhaps we will get one.


3 people like this
Posted by taxman
a resident of St. Francis Acres
on Jun 27, 2015 at 6:20 am

So cool, the future is here people I love it..


17 people like this
Posted by Rick Jay
a resident of Rengstorff Park
on Jun 27, 2015 at 7:12 am

"To google: One big mistake I have seen your cars make recently that can cause an accident is how it handles detours and constructions zones, heavy traffic, right turns. In the first, it went around without understanding the rules (too fast) and in the others, it waits way too long that confuses other drivers and then irritates them."

So it's like the millions of Asian drivers already out there then?

(If you were offended by this obvious joke, you need to get a life. Sterotypes while not credible are good comic relief. I posted this because all the politically correct atmosphere lately is suffocating. You can't simply laugh at something else you're immediately deemed a racist.)


3 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jun 27, 2015 at 9:37 am

I have lived in multiple cities and countries and only in the US is a car a necessity even for long distances, for work, school, daily routines, etc. Why is it that the solution to people dying in car accidents is to make the individual car self reliant and safer and not to build neighborhoods, society that works without individual cars at all. Cars are expensive for someone -- even if you do zipcar someone has to pay for the car and its maintenance. No matter how good the self driving car is, it is still a car on the road per 1.2 people. Traffic will still be bad. Parking will still take up much space. Cities and suburbs and country sides will still be heavily paved to allow people to go and park. Electric cars do not solve the carbon footprint, global warming or energy problems, especially when one takes in that the construction of the electric car (especially its body) takes more energy and provides more to global warming due to its special materials, than the construction and life use of a traditional gas powered car does.

On another note:
When self-driving cars do come on the market, won't the one that says it knows how to drive faster and cut between cars to get around slower google bugs to get its passenger to his/her destination faster with more excitement be also popular with many people? Won't hacks exist to change the way the car drives to make it faster and more aggressive be available (even if illegal)? The thought being that since a fast, unsleeping, undistractable computer is driving, it can predict and handle these situations much better than today (and while these behaviors can cause accidents when done by real drivers, they don't do it often enough to stop these drivers). Also how will one know for sure there isn't malware or a security leak in the car's system? Won't manufactures want to put in all kinds of add-on software to make more money from any 3rd party? How will the problems with cell phones and computers not appear in these cars when such hacks would be far more dangerous. Read IEEE articles to see how current cars are easily hacked to disable breaks or unlock when parked, etc.


15 people like this
Posted by Bill Evans (in Menlo Park)
a resident of another community
on Jun 28, 2015 at 2:31 pm

@resident of Old Mountain View

The trend in transportation is to automated systems for myriad obvious reasons. For example, in rail the latest metros in the Paris system are fully automated; in aviation all modern passenger aircraft are fly-by-wire and military aircraft are increasingly drones. It should not be surprising that the same evolution take place in road travel.

Automation can address three severe challenges with road travel: safety, arterial throughput, and parking overload. With SDC there will be fewer cars, higher throughput on the roads, and less parking--most of which will be in garages, invisible to pedestrians. Car manufacturers and operators won’t compete based on rudeness any more than they do in rail or aviation. I anticipate that "car transportation" will become a service: Uber without the driver. You order a car for 1 person, 4 persons, or 10 persons for a certain destination. Car service companies compete based on price, historical timeliness, and car amenities.

Cars solve the last-3-miles problem in way that rail transportation cannot…and this problem is acute in areas with low-density housing like California suburbs. Why not take advantage of our assets (great roads, great software) to deliver a better solution than enjoys Paris or Tokyo?

Trains are great for inter-city travel, but will be inferior to SDC for intra-city and suburban travel.


3 people like this
Posted by Oh My! Wait, no nevermind
a resident of Bailey Park
on Jun 29, 2015 at 10:04 am

I had to laugh when I read this:
"Read IEEE articles to see how current cars are easily hacked to disable breaks or unlock when parked, etc."

Ummm, pretty sure we can do all those things now without a sw hack. Wire snips, a coat hanger...yah, we're decades into that risk. Doesn't seem to be a major issue.


7 people like this
Posted by Alex M
a resident of Willowgate
on Jun 30, 2015 at 2:29 pm

Google still has some bugs to work out. My last encounter with one of their self-driving cars illustrated this. Other messages above point out the difficulty the cars have at 4-way stop signs, and failing to recognize road crew construction signs.

Other than the road crew incident, the default behavior in these cars is to stop and stay stopped, like a cautious driver afraid to move.

This happened to me. I was at T-intersection trying to turn left from the leg of the T into the crossbar of the T. A Google car was coming from my right. I wanted to wait for it and turn left to follow behind it.

As the Google car crossed the intersection, I nosed my car out slowly, intending to turn and follw behind it. The Google car sensed me nosing in. In spite of having NO cars ahead of it for an ENTIRE block, it braked suddenly and stopped in the middle of the intersection, throwing the occupants forward. The BEST reaction would have been to accelerate out of my way, but instead it blocked me while I was partway into the intersection, causing us both to obstruct traffic (although there wasn't any other traffic). This lasted a fraction of a second, then it resumed its journey and I turned left into the road to follow behind it as originally planned.

This incident made me realize that some decision logic improvements are in order. The reaction the car had to my nosing into the intersection seemed like the least safe reaction. The best reaction would have been to keep moving.


5 people like this
Posted by A ways to go
a resident of Bailey Park
on Jun 30, 2015 at 2:59 pm

Yah, I think everyone knows this is not the finished product.
If it were all robo-cars your vehicle would not have begun to ease out into traffic until it was entirely clear and everything would have been good, but the human factor, be it impatience or whatever, caused uncertainty which cause the test vehicle to err on the side of caution above all else.
Sounds to me like did the right thing, but again, everyone knows it is not the finished product out there.


21 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of another community
on Jul 1, 2015 at 5:32 pm

Just pretend like this car says "Student Driver" because basically that's what it is.

Autonomous vehicles will learn and in time, they will be a better operators than humans for typical non-commercial driving.


8 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Willowgate
on Jul 2, 2015 at 4:17 pm

"better operators than humans" is not a very high bar ;)


4 people like this
Posted by bicyclist
a resident of North Whisman
on Jul 8, 2015 at 10:18 am

I am eagerly awaiting Google's larger size robot chauffeur car so I can ride my exercise bike and do yoga in my car while being driven around. It can be like executive planes. No worries as they promise a injury free world ahead. No need to worry about traffic jams as everyone now will be driven around where ever and whenever they want in a much smoother fashion.


3 people like this
Posted by Bicycle Rider
a resident of Bailey Park
on Jul 8, 2015 at 2:11 pm

For myself, I'll enjoy the bike lane on my bike...without the moron drivers messing things up. It's gonna be great.


4 people like this
Posted by Dino
a resident of Bailey Park
on Jul 9, 2015 at 7:04 am

I can't wait to have my beers in the back & drink on the way to shoreline whir the car drives


3 people like this
Posted by Not Quite yet
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jul 9, 2015 at 8:23 am

Law states a driver must be in the driver's seat for now. I doubt you can drink or not have a seat belt either. That's for now but not sure if that'll change or remain in the future.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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