A fleet of Google's robot cars ferried more than two dozen reporters
around Mountain View, California, on Tuesday, in 30-minute ride-alongs
that showcased their ability to automatically and safely navigate
around city streets packed with cyclists, pedestrians and traffic
The demonstrations, along with a morning of press briefings by
Google managers developing the technology, marked the company's most
concerted effort to date to provide an up-close look at the cars
conceived five years ago in its secretive Google X division.
The public needs to understand that a self-driving car is "not
something that you need to fear but something you need to embrace,"
said Ron Medford, a former National Highway Traffic and Safety
Administration official who is now director of safety for Google's
self-driving car project.
"We do find that when people experience it, we get remarkable
results and responses," Medford said at the event at the Computer
History Museum, during which Google explained the technology that
makes the cars work.
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin tout the driverless car
as revolutionary technology that could eventually sharply reduce
fatalities on the road. But it remains to be seen whether it's ready
for widespread use.
Lately, some of Google's ambitious "moonshot" projects have stirred
unease. Google Glass, a postage stamp-sized computer screen that
attaches to eyeglass frames and is capable of recording video, has
raised privacy concerns.
For self-driving cars, consumer acceptance and regulation may be as
much issues as perfecting the technology.
Google will not say whether it will build its own cars or license
the technology to automakers, nor will it provide a firm date for
when the cars will be available. Co-founder Brin has said the
technology could be available by 2017.
It would be hard to mistake the gold Lexus RX 450h cars that Google
has converted into self-driving prototypes for normal cars,
primarily because of the roof-mounted laser sensor that revolves 10
times a second, gathering a 360-degree view of the car's
Other drivers who spot the self-driving car often swerve in front of
it and tap on their brakes, hoping to gauge the Google car's
reaction, according to the two Google staffers in the car's front
seats. Another favorite involves car drivers waving their hands in
the air, in an attempt to get the Google driver-seat staff member to
take his or her own hands off the wheel and prove the car is really
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"We just laugh at them," said one of the Google staff members in the
From the car's backseat, the ride feels little different from
sitting in a taxi. The car's speed, the distance it maintains from
the vehicle in front and its handling, for the most part, feel
Changing lanes occasionally feels sharper than typical, and the car
slowed down at a green light at one point until its sensors were
able to "read" a traffic light that was apparently mounted at an odd
The Google staff member in the driver's seat never took control of
the car, other than the initial passage through a speed bump-laden
parking lot, and once again on arrival.
Google's cars have never "caused" an accident in self-driving mode,
although they have been involved in a few fender benders, such as an
incident in which a Google car stopped at a red light got
rear-ended, said Chris Urmson, the head of Google's self-driving car
Unlike human drivers, self-driving cars never get drowsy behind the
wheel, and they can react to unforeseen situations much more
quickly, he said.
(Reporting by Alexei Oreskovic; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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