First ride in Google’s driverless car makes commuting more productive

Posted by hpayne on May 13, 2014

Detroit News auto writer Henry Payne poses with one of Google’s self-driving cars in Mountain View, Calif., Tuesday, May 13, 2014. (Sarah Rice / Special to the Detroit News)

Mountain View, Calif. — The great thing about driving a driverless car is that texting is legal. So is checking the Web for news. And taking notes on a pad.

I did all three Tuesday morning while testing Google’s self-driving car on public roads here, near the company’s headquarters. The test was the first time Google has made its car available to the media.

After logging 700,000 test miles on their own, Google Self-Driving Car Project Director Chris Urmson and his team felt their fleet of autonomous Lexus 450h hybrid crossovers was ready for prime time. These guys are bullish on self-driving cars.

“There’s this myth that people love driving,” says Urmson. “But commuting to work in the morning isn’t fun. What if we could let people focus on things like texting that they are already doing in their cars, but do it safely?”

Google’s Self Driving Car Is Safer Than You…

Google predicts that self-driving cars could eliminate 90 percent of the 33,000 vehicle fatalities a year, while making commuting more productive and less agonizing.

My three-mile drive through crowded city streets went without a hitch as the driverless Lexus negotiated stoplights, straying city buses, crosswalks — and even the odd jaywalker. Indeed, the experience is familiar to anyone who has driven, say, a new Cadillac or Mercedes with adaptive cruise control. The Google car uses similar radar technology that sets a cruise speed (Google’s technology is pegged to speed limits) and then brakes or accelerates as it monitors other vehicles.

What’s different — and a little freaky — is that the Google car does so much more. Like steer.

Rolling out of the Computer History Museum parking lot (a logical place for our drive to begin, no?), the steering wheel spun right like it was piloted by a ghost. At speed on the four-lane Shoreline Boulevard, the wheel rolled left, changing lanes to prepare for a left turn.

Suddenly a city bus veered toward our lane. The steering wheel vibrated, sensing the moving mass, while the car lightly applied brakes to take potential avoidance action. None was necessary. The Google car picked up speed again, never disturbing my texting.

How does Google car manage all this? Miles of computer code and a Velodyne laser dome.

Befitting the computer nerds who designed it, the laser dome — aka, the lidar — looks like a giant, whirling propeller beanie on top of the Lexus. Containing 64 lasers spinning at 10 revolutions per second, the lidar takes a staggering 1.5 million measurements per second.

In the trunk, a quad-core processor synchs the laser’s 360-degree view with maps of the surrounding terrain (no coincidence that former Google Maps director Andrew Chatham is lead mapping engineer for the car) to navigate a complex landscape of pedestrians, potholes, crosswalks and stoplights — not to mention other vehicles. Cameras at the beanie’s base read stoplights, stop signs and other color-coded cues.

California is one of four states — including Michigan — that authorizes the testing on public roads. By California law, I had to sit in the back seat while two Google engineers monitored up front. But other than answering my questions, the Googlers were wallflowers.

The 450h’s luxurious interior is unmolested save for two computer monitors on the dash that basically take the system’s pulse. An on/off button on the steering wheel allows a driver to switch to manual mode. A giant, red panic button on the center console can reboot everything should the computer have a brain freeze. They say it’s never been needed.

Director Urmson is passionate about the car’s potential. He predicts it will provide mobility to the blind and elderly. But he is mum on its commercial prospects, preferring to perfect the technology first.

“We still have a long road ahead,” he says, acknowledging the system’s high cost. Google won’t discuss development costs.

That said, its use by executives on long daily commutes doesn’t seem far away. California legislation has been fast-tracked to allow use in delivery fleets on predictable routes.

Ex-GM director of Research & Development and University of Michigan Professor of Engineering Larry Burns is a Google consultant who says the driverless car “will bring a period of transformational change.” That means safer, more efficient streets — but with labor disruptions as taxi drivers and other workers are displaced.

While I talked to test-driver Gavino Nestor, the Lexus suddenly slowed as two young jaywalkers hustled across the four-lane in front of us. The braking was smooth. No shrieking tires. No violent avoidance action. When they were gone, we returned to our conversation as the car accelerated to 35 mph and a promising future.

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