During a recent visit to Google headquarters in Mountain View campus in California, United States, I had a first look at what could be the future of the “no driving”.
Google has announced plans to start manufacturing their own vehicles to run without drivers instead of relying on other manufacturers. So far, the Internet giant had applied its technology in existing models such as the Toyota Prius and Lexus RX450hs. But the company vehicles will be small and beautiful city car, with smiling faces, not threatening, and useful features for pedestrians. The reasoning of the company is that if their cars are going to be self-employed, need not follow conventional designs.
As part of Google X, the semi-secret research arm of the Internet search giant, the team that is behind the program automatically driven vehicles is usually hidden from the public eye. But I managed to access them and find out what it takes to use this technology. I was interested to know how it feels to be a test driver of Google, to take second place, after the computer of the car, even if you’re behind the wheel.
BORING TRIP: TRIP HELPFUL
The first thing I noticed was the complexity of the preparations before the driverless cars go on the road. Although new cars of Google are designed to dispense eventually frills and pedals, initially the company wants to equip cars with specific controls for humans, who can connect to standalone devices and control them, so they can try highway safety.
Cars like the one I used have always had two people on board prepared to take control, as in today’s vehicles. Maybe not touch the wheel for most of the route, but still have to be there, constantly alert, watching the road and watching the mistakes of their independent drivers. Ultimately, it is a success if you pass travel as smoothly as possible.
“During the trip, the best that can happen is that everything is boring, because that means its safe”, says Brian Torcellini, chief test driver of Google and the man responsible for training other drivers to not drive. Take on the team since 2009 and was one of the first pilots of an autonomous self.
The current fleet of unmanned cars, about two dozen of them, is the basis for Google in Mountain View. The Google test drivers are not allowed to take home. When you take to the streets, it is usually under carefully controlled conditions. The early blue Toyota Prius vehicles have been replaced with Lexus SUVs bright white. They are easy to see, they have a pretty lanky laser scanner on the roof and the company logo in primary colors on the side.
“Every morning, drivers mark their income like anyone else, then take the file, perform some tests and then return, leave the vehicle and go up the data”, says Torcellini.
Google drivers have to learn to stop driving the machine, but are also encouraged to be very cautious with the skills of self. If you ever feel the slightest discomfort with the way you drive the computer, are instructed to immediately take control with a stomp pedal or turning the steering wheel. Engineers can then gather information from computers and simulate and extrapolate what the car would have. The comparison between the hypothetical action and human intervention can be used to help improve the software of the car.
Although it is assumed that they have to be cautious, drivers are also forms for extreme situations. They riddled cars for circuits of curves and tracks specific tests to really experience how render in extreme situations. They are very unlikely to find conditions on the road, but the hope is that if they are, for example, ice, computers know how to react.
“Most of the time we left to drive not spends time dodging cones Torcellini-says-but we believe that the best we can do is train hard for our creatures”.
One of the biggest challenges before the vehicle starts to go outside; drivers have to take the controls to exit the parking lot before hearing the soothing female tone ad “autoconducción” which tells us that the computer takes over.
“Many parking lots, in a way, are even more complicated than the public roads”, says Alyssa, driver safety.
Often there are no lane markings right, are full of people walking in all directions and there are obstacles such as shopping carts. It’s the kind of environment boisterous and perilous driving that human can process instinctively, but it might be less obvious to a computer.
The team also helps improve the software of the car with a record of the experiences of the driver that is updated on a laptop located in the passenger seat.
“Constantly leave comments on little things that we believe may feel softer and more typical of a traditional driving”, says Alyssa.
Driving tests are essential to understand best how to be traveling in a car unmanned for both passengers and people outside the vehicle. The aim is to make the car look natural behavior, to integrate well with other cars and it does not seem erratic or doubtful.
FAME AND HISTORY
So what is it like to sit in a car that is driven by a computer?
The day I sat in the back of an SUV of Google, one of the latest versions, there was certainly no skidding round corners and I can say that the car accelerates at a good pace. During the test, cyclists and pedestrians we take pictures with their cell phones when we turn to it. Even in Silicon Valley, driverless cars attract attention in a way that would be jealous to own a Ferrari, something that the two drivers traveling with me are accustomed.
“Many people have the feeling that we have a really great job and it’s true. They are making history, and it is fantastic to be part of it”, says Loren, one of the drivers.
If you would like to be part of the team, what would be the advice of Torcellini?
“We are looking for people with good judgment”, says the expert.
That may be difficult to establish in a single interview, so the recruitment process consists of several phases and includes an interview of driving. The process is hard, but if the company fleet expands as ambitiously as suggested by the new ad for Google, one thing is clears: there will be need for many more drivers of human testing before we have a world full of controlled cars for computers.