The first time Dan Edmunds jumped inside one of Google’s self-driving cars, the experience was surreal. The tiny two-seater—which looked a lot like an oversized lima bean—had no steering wheel, no brakes and no accelerator pedal.
“It felt like being on a carnival ride,” said Edmunds, the director of vehicle testing at Edmunds.com. “It was something ‘other.’”
Google’s self-driving cars have been causing a stir since being unveiled in 2009. Backers say they could revolutionize the way people get from A to B by reducing accidents, speeding up traffic and giving freedom to those with disabilities. Edmunds, who tested two Google vehicles in and around the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, saw some of that promise. “It’s still early days [but] the Google cars were really impressive,” he said.
The company has two main types of self-driving rides: specially modified Lexus SUVs and what it calls its “prototype,” a pod-shaped electric car built from the ground up by Google engineers. The cars use sophisticated sensors—including what was a reportedly $70,000 laser—to “see” the world around them.
But the real genius is in the software, which interprets the data and tells the car what to do. The system is so advanced that during Edmunds’s test ride, it was able to recognize a stop sign held up by a crossing guard and come to a halt. Once the guard lowered the sign, the vehicle—one of the modified SUVs—drove off again.
Edmunds said the car navigated the streets of Mountain View like a pro and that he never felt the urge to grab the wheel, though, at times, the ride was almost too conservative. At one intersection, the car stayed put for 90 seconds fearing it would get boxed in by traffic ahead; meanwhile, several human-controlled vehicles passed by. “I wanted to say, ‘You can go now,’” recalls Edmunds. “Any human would have done it.”
Google’s emphasis on safety does seem to be paying off. During 1.8 million miles of road testing, the company says its self-driving cars have never caused an accident, though they have been rear-ended and side-swiped several times by human-controlled vehicles.
So, are these vehicles the way of the future? Edmunds isn’t sure. They need incredibly precise road maps in order to operate—diagrams that are much more detailed than Google’s Street View—and charting every inch of road in the country will be a challenge. “I can see these cars being used on a campus…or in some large cities,” he said. “But they don’t seem like something that you’ll be able to hop into and say ‘Take me skiing in Utah.’”
Car technology is getting smarter by the day, and passenger safety is a top priority. To learn more about what you can expect, read our Future of Car Safety article.
By Andrew Raven