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Look, no hands! Test driving a Google car

17 August 2014, 17:37

Mountain View - The car stopped at stop signs. It glided around curves. It didn't lurch or jolt. The most remarkable thing about the drive was that it was utterly unremarkable.

This isn't damning with faint praise. It's actually high praise for the car in question: Google's driverless car.

Most automotive test drives are altogether different.

There's a high-horsepower car. A high-testosterone automotive engineer. And a high-speed race around a test track by a boy-racer journalist eager to prove that, with just a few more breaks, he really could have been, you know, a Nascar driver.

Speed limit

This test drive, in contrast, took place on the placid streets of Mountain View, the Silicon Valley town that houses Google's headquarters.

The engineers on hand weren't high-powered "car guys" but soft-spoken Alpha geeks of the sort that have emerged as the Valley's dominant species. And there wasn't any speeding even though, ironically, Google's engineers have determined that speeding actually is safer than going the speed limit in some circumstances.

"Thousands and thousands of people are killed in car accidents every year," said Dmitri Dolgov, the project's boyish Russian-born lead software engineer, who now is a US citizen, describing his sense of mission.

"This could change that."

Previous year

Dolgov, 36, did not once during an hour-long conversation utter the words "performance," "horsepower," or "zero-to-60," which are mantras at every other new-car test drive. Instead Dolgov repeatedly invoked "autonomy," the techie term for cars capable of driving themselves.

Google publicly disclosed its driverless car programme in 2010, though it began the previous year.

It's part of the company's "Google X" division, overseen directly by co-founder Sergey Brin and devoted to "moon shot" projects by the internet company, as Dolgov puts it, that might take years, if ever, to bear fruit.

So if there's a business plan for the driverless car, Google isn't disclosing it.

Dolgov, who recently "drove" one of his autonomous creations the 725km or so from Silicon Valley to Tahoe and back for a short holiday, simply says his mission is to perfect the technology, after which the business model will fall into place.

Human brain

The technology easily handles routine driving. The car was a Lexus RX 450h, a gas-electric hybrid crossover vehicle - with special modifications, of course.

There's a front-mounted radar sensor for collision avoidance. And more conspicuously, a revolving cylinder perched above the car's roof that's loaded with lasers, cameras, sensors and other detection and guidance gear. The cylinder is affixed with ugly metal struts, signalling that stylistic grace, like the business plan, has yet to emerge.

But function precedes form here and that rotating cylinder is a reasonable replacement for the human brain (at least some human brains) behind the wheel of a car.

Dolgov, in the front passenger's seat, entered the desired destination to a laptop computer that was wired into the car. The car mapped the route and headed off. The only excitement, such as it was, occurred when an oncoming car seemed about to turn left across our path. The driverless car hit the brakes and the driver of the oncoming car quickly corrected course.

Traffic conditions

Google's driverless car is programmed to stay within the speed limit, mostly. Research shows that sticking to the speed limit when other cars are going much faster actually can be dangerous, Dolgov says, so its autonomous car can go up to 16km/h above the speed limit when traffic conditions warrant.

Google also has built little bubble-shaped test cars that lack steering wheels, brakes and accelerator pedals. They run on electricity, seat two people and are limited to going 40km/h - in other words, self-driving golf carts.

Self-driving cars could appear on roads by the end of this decade, predicted a detailed report on the budding driverless industry issued late last year by investment bank Morgan Stanley . Other experts deem that forecast extremely optimistic.

- Reuters

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