The door to the Lexus SUV shut. I had left the real world and entered the land of The Jetsons. Only question was, would I get out alive?Reams have been written about Google’s five-year-old self-driving car effort, but the focus typically is on the tech know-how required for this feat of automotive magic. Let’s be clear: the search engine employs enough PhDs to whip up a moon launch for lunch. They’ll crack this code.
STORY: Google’s driverless car makes strides
No, the real autonomous-car hurdle isn’t scientific, it’s emotional. How many of us are ready to let a robot shuttle us around town? I was about to, thanks to a Google event Tuesday designed to update reporters on the project’s progress.
As the Google driver hit a button marked “On” on the steering wheel, the laser-equipped vehicle signaled right and effortlessly merged into a lane of busy traffic. The earth didn’t stop spinning. And other drivers didn’t pelt the car with rocks. In fact, they barely paid us any mind as we navigated this Silicon Valley suburbs’s busy streets.
The front seat passenger, also a Google-employed test driver, monitored a laptop that streamed a basic image of our drive. Cars were identified as large outlined boxes in motion. Pedestrians were smaller boxes. Traffic lights and signs appeared as themselves.
For the next 10 minutes, the car drove our predetermined loop. A green light turned yellow and it slowed to a stop. A crosswalk appeared up ahead, and the car eased off the gas slightly in anticipation of braking if a person suddenly popped up.
Most of its movements were smooth and predictable. The only exceptions included one instance in which a large truck to the right of us started edging our way; the Google car jerked abruptly left, but not so much that it got close to the other lane. Generally speaking, the car drove conservatively, a bit like grandparents heading to church.
What made this drive eventful was how utterly uneventful it was. On this predetermined route at least – a route that had been mapped out in detail for the car by Google engineers – there seemed like little chance for drama. Mapping the entire U.S. roadway system in similarly reassuring detail will be a chore, but it is conceivable.
What may prove a bit tougher is winning the hearts and minds of motorists. Google’s self-driving cars in fact tool around with drivers ready to step in at any sign of trouble. And on my cruise, the mere presence of a human behind the wheel made the experience seem familiar. Had that seat been empty, the drive would have been plain creepy.
Which brings me to a humble suggestion for the big brains at Google: deploy this self-driving tech in public buses first.
Think about it. Unless you’re at the front of a bus, you don’t really see the driver. Sitting at the back you might as well be driven around by a robot as far as your senses are concerned; the bus is moving along on its own, and eventually you’ll get out. A self-driving bus, slow and lumbering, may be the onramp we all need into this brave new world of transportation.