This is what it’s like to ride in Google’s self-driving car
Riding in Google’s self-driving car, which I had the chance to do Tuesday, is both exhilarating and sort of mundane.
This little gumdrop on wheels provides a glimpse of a world in which anyone, including children, the elderly, and the disabled, can jump in a car and be chauffeured to a predetermined destination. Just thinking about the technology and how it could change the way people move—not to mention what this could mean for Google—is exciting.
And yet, the ride itself was so safe and steady that it was almost—if this weren’t a self-driving car—boring.
After walking up a set of stairs and through a rather beastly locked metal gate, I arrived onto an empty rooftop at Google’s Mountain View, Calif. headquarters. My first hands-on impression: this might be a diminutive-looking car, but the doors are quite heavy and large.
Once inside, the interior is simple, yet spacious, and clearly designed for riding, not driving. I sit next to another rider on a wide bench-like upholstered seat. There are a few buttons in the center console: one says “go,” and a red one is for an emergency stop. There’s a seat heater, a button to control windows, and finally one to turn on the interior lights — for reading, of course. Just below the windshield is a display that shows a map of the route ahead.
I push the go button, and the car starts, albeit carefully. The ride, a brief four minutes, feels a bit like an amusement park ride without the tight turns, speed, or screams. In that time, the car encounters a pedestrian, a bicyclist, some orange cones, and another car. And it passes each test by automatically slowing down and yielding or navigating around the few twists and turns on the closed course.
There is no steering wheel or brakes, because well, who needs them? A computer does the driving. But Google makes up for jettisoning some of the traditional car essentials by adding lasers, radar, and sensors that give the vehicle’s brains a 360-degree view of its environment to the point that it can recognize objects up to two football fields away.
While the ride was smooth, the cars still have a few kinks. This is, after all, a test project. During one test ride (not mine), the self-driving car stopped, as it should, when a bicyclist (a Google employee) rode in front of it. But the car wouldn’t start again until the Google folks came out and overrode the system.
These self-driving cars have never hit another vehicle or pedestrian, according to Google. But if they did, there are a few extra safety measures built into the vehicle like a flexible windshield and a front end made of a foam-like material.
For Google’s self-driving cars to operate, the company had to first map the road. Before any route is driven, the company creates a detailed, digital map of all the features of the road such as lane markers and traffic signals so software in the car is familiar with the surrounding environment.
In June, Google (GOOG) introduced a self-driving car that it had designed itself, without pedals and steering wheels, but lots of sensors and software. It hopes to commercialize its technology by 2020.
Testing still includes Lexus RX450h SUVs equipped with autonomous software. And the experiment has been expanded to include Austin, Tex.
When used on public streets in California, employees must attach steering wheels, accelerator pedals, and brake pedals so that test drivers can take over if necessary (and to comply with state regulations). They were not present during my ride.
Automakers have upped the self-driving ante over the past year. A number of companies, including Audi, Bosch, Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz unit, Delphi Automotive (DLPH), Google, and Nissan have permits through a California DMV program for testing self-driving cars.
While my ride in Google’s self-driving car was a success—no accidents or mishaps, it would be a mistake to assume that autonomous driving is right around the corner. There are still significant liability, data security, regulatory, infrastructure hurdles. That being said, Google is motivated. Chris Urmson, the director of the company’s self-driving cars project, says he wants his 12-year-old son to be able to ride in an autonomous vehicle by the time he reaches driving age. That’s just four years away—a highly aggressive timeline that’s faster than most industry estimates.
For more about self-driving cars, watch this Fortune video: