In a Backchannel piece, Steven Levy shares
everything most things he learned during an inside look at Google’s autonomous-car mission command at the decommissioned Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, California. Most of the (non-)drivers hired to put miles on the vehicles are recent Liberal Arts grads who test the prototypes on streets in Mountain View and Austin. Some are even employed as human props, known as “professional pedestrians.” “We just have to learn to trust,” one tells Levy. It seems the tight-lipped company’s testing of the cars may have gone beyond what people realize.
Google’s ultimate goal, of course, is to make a transition from testing to systems where no safety drivers are needed — just passengers. For some time, Google has been convinced that the semiautonomous systems that others champion (which include various features like collision prevention, self-parking, and lane control on highways) are actually more dangerous than to the so-called Level Four degree of control, where the car needs no human intervention. (Each of the other levels reflects a degree of driver involvement.) The company is convinced that with cars that almost but don’t drive themselves, humans will be lulled into devoting attention elsewhere and unable to take quick control in an emergency. (Google came to that conclusion when it allowed some employees to commute with the cars, using autodrive only on premapped freeways. One Googler, perhaps forgetting that the company was capturing the whole ride on video, pretty much crawled into the backseat for a phone charger while the car sped along at 65 miles per hour.)
Google also believes that cars should be able to move around even with no humans in them, and it has been hoping for an official go-ahead to begin a shuttle service between the dozens of buildings it occupies in Mountain View, where slow-moving, no-steering-wheel prototypes would putter along by themselves to pick up Googlers. It was bitterly disappointed when the California DMV ruled it was not yet time for driverless cars to travel the streets, even in those limited conditions. The DMV didn’t even propose a set of requirements that Google could satisfy to make this happen. Meanwhile, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, is barreling ahead, introducing a driverless feature in his Tesla cars called Summon. He predicts that by 2018, Tesla owners will be able to summon their cars from the opposite coast, though it’s a mystery how the cars would recharge themselves every 200 or so miles.
But maybe Musk is not the first. When I discussed this with [program director Chris] Urmson, he postulated that in most states — California not among them — it was not illegal to operate driverless cars on public streets. I asked him whether Google had sent out cars with no one in them to pick up people in Austin. He would not answer.•