Here's something that irks Chris Urmson: Sometimes people will get in self-driving cars, the spectacularly complex piece of technology he runs at Google and to which he has devoted most of his scientific career, and leave with a shrug.
Once, Urmson was riding in one of Google's Lexus SUVs down a freeway. Several minutes in, his fellow passenger turned to him, nonplussed.
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Urmson, recalling the story on Google's Mountain View campus earlier this week, threw up his hands: "Do you have any idea how hard this is?!"
Soon, there may be many more blasé reactions to one of Google's most audacious moonshots. On Friday, the Internet giant announced that the first autonomous vehicle it has manufactured — a squat two-seater, unveiled a year ago, with no steering wheel or brakes — will begin rolling out on public roads in northern California this summer. Urmson and his team have assembled 25 of the cars, which, for now, are just called "prototypes." (Re/code has dubbed them "clown cars"; Google may be more partial to the "Koala car" nomenclature.) When they hit the roads, they will not exceed 25 miles per hour. And, due to current state regulations, they must be equipped with brakes, an accelerator pedal and a steering wheel.
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But ultimately, Google wants to strip those out.
The company's stated goal is shepherding fleets of vehicles that can drive with no need for human intervention, a bid to curtail the time wasted in traffic and aide those unable to drive. "At that point, the steering wheel and brake pedal just don't add value," Urmson said during the demonstration at the new Google X headquarters in Mountain View. "Over the last few years, we've been focused almost purely on tightening the technology. The big next step is bringing it into the community and seeing how it mixes with people."
At its event to show off the car, Google mixed with people. Along with press, Google invited local community members and disability advocates onto its spacious, secure rooftop. Sergey Brin, the co-founder behind Google's futuristic ventures, made an appearance. He reiterated Urmson's point, arguing that for one target market of the technology — several blind community members were given lifts in the car — steering wheels aren't the issue. "That doesn't address the mission of access," Brin said.
Google's announcement comes on the tail of sharp criticism. On Monday, the Associated Press reported that Google's Lexus vehicles were involved in three accidents since September, when California required autonomous vehicle testers to declare a permit.
Later that day, Google released (incidentally, by Google's telling) the first glimpse at numbers on its self-driving car experiment: 11 accidents during the 1.7 million miles on the road since 2009. (That puts its incident rate at more than twice the national average of 0.3 damaging incidents per 100,000 miles.) Urmson detailed the accidents: Seven came from other cars rear-ending theirs, two were freeway side-swipes and one was a silly error from a Google test driver who was using the manual controls at the time. Google insists that the higher rate comes from thorough reporting, something most human drivers ignore.
When its homemade cars hit the pavement, Google will also launch a website for community feedback on the trials, and will begin posting regulator progress reports, including miles driven, noteworthy trends and incidents.
"It sounds cliche, but safety is issue one, two and three," Brin told the audience.
Google's built-from-scratch car looks similar to its debut a year ago, when Re/code took it for an inaugural spin. It uses the same complex software and hardware — a jury-rigged, advanced network of swirling lasers, cameras and radar — as the existing Lexus fleet.
Over the last year, the cars have grown considerably smarter and more adept, said Dmitri Dolgov, who leads software for the self-driving cars. They can decipher a trash can from a pedestrian, and even pick up what a pedestrian's hand motions mean.
Gradually, they're also learning to handle unusual traffic situations. In Mountain View, Urmson showed earlier footage of Google's Lexus at an intersection when a renegade cyclist crossed in front, running a red light. As the light turned, a truck to the Lexus' left veered ahead, barely missing the cyclist. Google's SUV saw it and stood still. (One car encountered something rarer still: A wheelchair-bound suburbanite chasing a duck; the car opted to stall.)
If anything, the car errs on the side of caution. At the Google X headquarters, Google offered rides to the select few community members and reporters. During my ride, the car easily handled the planned obstacle course. A gentle slowdown when a Googler suddenly walked in front. A smooth turn when another veered ahead on a bicycle. But when my car turned to face the unexpected gaggle of press surrounding Brin, it jolted to a halt. Then lurched ahead like a nervous 16-year-old. The car is not accustomed to large gatherings of people in open spaces, Dolgov explained.
Yet, it learned from the encounter. With each ride, the cars deposit the observed data and share it across the entire fleet.
Also, Google has learned more political savviness. The California DMV has awarded testing permits to Google and six other manufacturers, including Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and Tesla. But industry observers said the company has advanced more aggressively in lobbying. In Nevada, which granted Google the state's maiden self-driving license in 2012, Google was the driving force in the policy process, at the expense of rivals.
"The DMV and especially the state legislature, only listening to Google, wrote a law that was fine for Google but was really problematic for car manufacturers," said Ryan Calo, a law professor and robotics specialist at the University of Washington campus.
On the Google X campus, Brin, outfitted in shorts and Crocs (but no Glass), offered some boilerplate executive-speak. ("We are still refining our business plan." "The regulatory issues are non-trivial.") But he also hinted at the ambition of the program. "We've had pretty good conversations with a number of states," he said. "And, for that matter, a number of countries."
Someone asked about his declaration, in 2012, that his self-driving cars would be ready for public use in five years. "That's still right on track," he said, before turning to his auto director. Urmson sheepishly corrected him — it's closer to five years from now.
Brin, whose mathematics prowess built Google's search engine, replied: "Well, I haven't done the math."
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