Northern Californian neighborhoods are getting ready to welcome autonomous vehicle test drives to their public roads.
Humans, get ready to ride shotgun.
Google’s computer-driven cars will debut on the public streets of northern California this summer, according to the director of Google’s GOOG -0.90% self-driving car project Chris Urmson.
Capped at 25 miles per hour (or 40 kilometers per hour), the cars will not be flying entirely solo just yet. They’ll have people on board and ready to take the wheel—a removable steering wheel, as well as gas and brake pedals—should the occasion call for it.
“That fleet has logged nearly a million autonomous miles on the roads since we started the project, and recently has been self-driving about 10,000 miles a week,” Urmson writes on the company blog. “So the new prototypes already have lots of experience to draw on—in fact, it’s the equivalent of about 75 years of typical American adult driving experience.”
The announcement comes soon after Google’s recent acknowledgement that its autonomous vehicles have been involved in nearly a dozen minor accidents over the past six years. Responding to an Associated Press story that revealed the incidents, Urmson wrote that all of the collisions involved “light damage, no injuries,” and: “Not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident.”
Re/code reporter Mark Bergan, who took a spin in Google’s pod-like “koala car,” describes his experience as having gone smoothly. Until, that is, he had a run-in with a crowd of journalists swarming Sergey Brin, Google co-founder and head of the company’s moonshot division Google X, which developed the technology (with help).
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. [Editor’s note: Dmitri Dolgov is the software lead for the self-driving car project.] Google also plans to launch a website that will help it maintain a dialogue with the public about the upcoming test drives, including regular updates on progress and incidents.
“Over the last few years, we’ve been focused almost purely on tightening the technology,” Urmson said at a demonstration of the technology, as reported by Re/code. “The big next step is bringing it into the community and seeing how it mixes with people.”
Google’s fleet has about 25 cars and uses the same software as its existing fleet of sensor-laden, autonomous Lexus SUVs. As Dolgov tells Re/code, they can even tell a person from a trash can.