GABE NELSON

Along for the ride on a course set by Silicon Valley

Gabe Nelson is a staff reporter for Automotive News
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MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- If you have ever wondered how it feels to ride through town in one of Google's self-driving vehicles, there's just one word to describe it: ordinary.

And that's the extraordinary thing.

Last week, for the first time since Google co-founder Sergey Brin commissioned the self-driving vehicle experiment in 2009, the technology giant pulled open the blinds to the media.

After a series of presentations by project director Christopher Urmson and the engineers in charge of self-driving software, mapping data and vehicle testing, journalists were taken on a 25-minute loop through the city streets of Mountain View.

Google clearly wanted to show that its cars can handle an urban environment with cyclists, pedestrians and tricky traffic maneuvers. In April the company said its cars have traveled more than 700,000 miles under computer control, with a recent emphasis on surface roads, which Urmson described as about "100 times more difficult than freeway driving."

As I sat in the backseat of one of Google's modified Lexus RX 450h crossovers with test drivers in the front seats, those difficulties were nowhere to be seen. I found myself absent-mindedly and comfortably gazing out the window because it felt just like a skilled human was in control of the vehicle.

Yet city driving is a delicate dance. It has hard rules, such as traffic signals and speed limits, but much of it is about drivers' expectations -- the unwritten customs of the road: how quickly to speed up and slow down, the body language and nonverbal agreement of changing lanes.

All that must feel natural, and, at first blush, Google's car passed the tests.

For one thing, the car knows to keep down the G-forces. It accelerates briskly from a stop, but not jarringly. It braked softly enough to be comfortable, except in one case, when we were coming down a hill and a traffic light turned yellow. The car made a snap calculation and slammed the brakes to avoid running a red light. It felt harsh, partly because of the hill, but it was probably a sensible decision.

The same goes for courtesy on the road. Google's car knows to give other drivers and cyclists their space.

All around us, Google employees whizzed around on the multicolored bicycles that Google makes available for crossing its corporate campus. Our car approached a slow-moving bicycle on the right shoulder of the road. Rather than centering itself in the lane, as the car is normally programmed to do, it nudged over to give the cyclist extra cushion.

Then a large truck started to encroach on our lane. The car edged over again.

It showed a few other learned behaviors for safety's sake. It waits a second or so to accelerate when a light turns green, in case a driver decides to blow through a yellow light and mistimes the maneuver. In another nod to self-preservation, Google also programmed its car to stay out of other cars' blind spots.

Yet the Google car is not timid.

At one point, we passed a speed radar outside one of Google's buildings. The posted speed limit was 35. As we approached, the electronic board told us we were going exactly 35. Never 34. Never 36.

I asked a test driver about that. She told me that traffic conditions permitting, Google programs its cars to move as fast as the law allows. It's an apt metaphor for Google, which sees itself racing ahead of the auto industry.

Gabe Nelson has been appointed Automotive News' first technology reporter in Silicon Valley.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.


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