I’m in Google’s driverless car (and it could be on YOUR street)


Caroline Graham, Mail on Sunday LA Correspondent

17:05 EDT, 30 August 2014

06:51 EDT, 1 September 2014

It is the mouth you notice first, an enigmatic half-smile that draws you in. There are the eyes, wide and inviting, that cute black button nose… And, just like that, I’ve fallen in love with Google’s self-driving car.

It is a ‘moonshot’ project, a vision of the future, with no steering wheel, gears or brakes – a vehicle so sophisticated it can negotiate traffic entirely by itself, read road signs, change lanes, and even execute emergency stops. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Google car could transform our everyday lives, and I have just become the first Briton, in fact the first person from outside America, to ‘drive’ it.

The market in autonomous cars is developing fast, and our own Government has already announced pilot tests in three cities starting next year. But this futuristic Google prototype is streets ahead of what any other manufacturer is offering so far. Its curved edges are practical as well as visually appealing, designed to allow the lasers, sensors and cameras mounted on top of the car in a rotating casing known as a ‘lidar’ to have optimal vision around the vehicle.

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Caroline Graham takes a spin in Google’s new car – called Firefly or the ‘bubble’ or ‘bobble’ car or ‘koala’ because of its distinctive grey-and-white livery or Bert after the Sesame Street character

The ‘eyes’ are headlights. The ‘nose’ is a laser sensor and radar.

If it wants a good view of what is coming up, it bounces a beam beneath the car ahead and takes a look.

The car’s body is made from lightweight polycarbonate. The windscreen is a flexible thick plastic that bends to the touch. The bonnet is soft foam that would minimise the impact in the unlikely event, according to Google, of a collision.

To navigate the road ahead, the car uses a combination of video cameras, radar sensors, lasers, GPS and the most detailed 3D maps ever compiled. ‘The maps even show the height of the kerb,’ explains Chris Urmson, 38, a softly spoken bear of a man who leads the self-driving car team. ‘They are constantly being updated to show road works and other variables.’

Google believes driverless cars could eventually cut the number of road deaths in half. ‘Everything is designed to minimise injury in the event of an accident,’ he continues. ‘Nothing can ever be 100 per cent accident-proof but we truly believe this vehicle can and will save lives.’

THE car has not yet been on public roads. In California, all drivers must be able to take ‘immediate physical control’ of a vehicle for it to be able to travel on the state’s roads. The car will be allowed in ‘real’ traffic in a few weeks’ time, when it will go on trials with a safety driver and a steering wheel.

Caroline does some work, writing top stories and even makes a call while ‘driving’ Google’s new car

So my test takes place in a car park at Google’s sprawling Mountain View campus – known as the Googleplex – in the heart of Silicon Valley, California. My vehicle is ‘summoned’ via a mobile phone. Google’s vision is that customers will share a driverless car which will be ordered via an app.

‘The car will pick you up, take you where you want to go and then can go off and do errands like pick up your dry-cleaning, freeing you to do other things,’ Urmson says.

I step inside and sink into soft Hermes orange leather seats. It is surprisingly spacious, uncluttered by the normal ‘car’ things like pedals, a steering wheel and handbrake. Instead there are two buttons – green for Go and red for Stop.

There is an oblong flatscreen in front of me which shows the time, date, temperature and a computer-generated image of the road ahead. Beneath the high-tech screen is a storage bay for luggage.

I hit the Go button and take off. The electric engine purrs into life, taking me to a top speed of 25mph.

The car skilfully navigates sharp turns and potential hazards of parked cars and pedestrians who wander in and out of the roadway.

It ‘senses’ corners and slows down automatically before speeding up into a straight. The sensation is surreal. Stationary vehicles and pedestrians show up on the screen as ‘box’ shapes. At one point we accelerate down a straight when Urmson suddenly steps out in front of the car… and it automatically slams on the breaks and comes to a controlled halt. It’s eerie, impressive and utterly captivating. After a few minutes it all starts to feel normal. As the car drives itself I open a computer and answer email. I become oblivious to the outside world. I answer my phone and do some work. I feel perfectly safe. Then I hit the Stop button and my journey into the future comes to a gentle halt.

While the prototype has no official name, those working on the car have dubbed it Firefly. During my two days at the Googleplex, I also hear it referred to as the ‘bubble’ or ‘bobble’ car and also ‘koala’ because of its distinctive grey-and-white livery.

One employee calls it ‘Bert’ because of its resemblance to the Muppet of the same name on the children’s TV show Sesame Street.

A further 100 Google bubble cars are being built which will be test-driven by a hand-selected group in the near future. ‘The car you are sitting in is the very first incarnation,’ Urmson explains, pointing at the rudimentary seatbelts and lack of side windows. ‘We are building a more polished version.’

Because the car does away with human error, Google believes there will eventually be free-flowing ‘streams’ of vehicles all ‘talking’ to each other. Distances between the cars will be reduced to a few inches and traffic signals could be abolished as computerised cars ‘flow’ in a carefully choreographed pattern, speeding up travel and negating the biggest cause of accidents… flawed human beings who drink, make mistakes and use mobile phones behind the wheel.

It’s unclear when the Google prototype will come to Britain, but self-driving cars are about to become a reality in the UK after the Government passed legislation allowing them to take to the roads in 2015.

Conventional car-makers such as Audi and Mercedes are developing their own vehicles in a race with Google to control what could be, potentially, an industry worth billions.

Google itself has been developing self-driving cars since 2009 and has a fleet of 24 modified Toyota Lexus hybrids which are a common sight around Mountain View, a tech town of 75,000 people, an hour south of San Francisco. These cars have clocked up 700,000 miles of autonomous driving. There has been only one accident, when a car was rear-ended while the vehicle was in manual drive, and that was down to human error. Urmson takes me for a spin in one. ‘Look, no hands,’ he says, waving both arms in the air.

A Google colleague sits in the passenger seat monitoring the drive on a laptop. The screen shows what the car is ‘seeing’. A yellow line shows our route. Pedestrians show up in red. Other cars are purple boxes. Google’s engineers have developed algorithms that ‘predict’ how traffic will act. The car slows as a vehicle overtakes. It slows again as a cyclist approaches traffic cones and swerves outwards. As we merge to join a motorway there is a hair-raising moment when another driver accelerates from behind and suddenly swerves in front of us. ‘Manual control,’ the car says in a soothing female voice, and in a split second Urmson assumes control. ‘The car just did what it was supposed to do,’ he says reassuringly.

But a human is not always needed in an emergency. One automated Lexus stopped inexplicably as it was being driven down a country road. Seconds later a deer jumped in front of it. The car had ‘seen’ the deer’s movement in thick trees before the driver had.

But won’t some people always want the thrill of a Ferrari, I ask Urmson? ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘and there will always be a place on the roads for manually driven cars. But in terms of the masses, we believe most people would rather use the time spent driving doing something more interesting.’

Stepping out of the latest Google car, I am reluctant to leave. There is something instantly addictive about it – plus it allows technology to improve on something which is inherently flawed. The fact that it is as cute as a button is a bonus.

Now, if they would just add a vanity mirror…

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