Yes, there is a Big Red Button for... something.

Although plenty of journalists have been passengers in Google’s cars, Steven Levy is probably the first one to sit in the drivers’ seat. (Although, technically, aren’t we all passengers in Google’s cars?) Levy writes about his experience at Backchannel in a thoroughly entertaining (and very long ) piece that reveals more than a few things we didn’t know about the big G’s top secret division, with lots of photos.

Like Mcity, the fake city in Ann Arbor, Michigan where autonomous vehicles are tested, Google has a “Castle,” a former air force base that the company has converted into a self-driving speedway. According to Chris Urmson, who heads the self-driving division, “drivers” are trained here for about four weeks before they take one of Google’s 53 prototypes onto actual streets in California and Texas. Levy didn’t get to drive out into downtown Mountain View, but he got to take a crash (haha) course before zooming around the testing facility:

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As my lesson proceeds, I begin to understand that commandeering a car that drives itself is not a Seinfeldian exercise in nothingness, but a fairly demanding job. There’s no texting, eating, smoking, or binge-watching Netflix. As a driver, you are constantly poised to wrest control from the car. Your hands hover over the wheel, at nine and three o’clock. Your right foot is cocked over the accelerator or brake pedal. (That’s not comfortable, but Urmson says drivers get used to it.)

If you’re riding shotgun, the demands on your attention are just as rigorous. Comparing x_view to the actual world requires attention and the ability to type notes for the engineers in a moving vehicle.

One other thing: On the console between the driver and co-driver is the BRB, the Big Red Button. And that’s what it is: something like you’d find on the control panel of a Bond villain, reached only after escaping a shark tank and breaking out of the death grip of an iron-jawed henchman. The BRB is the ultimate disengagement, instantly handing back control to the driver. I am not to press it unless other disengagements fail. Oh, hell, I am not to press it at all. (Later I found out that it cuts off the self-driving system entirely and turns it into a regular Lexus. Kind of like Kryptonite.)

Why is Google letting writers “drive” its cars around its clandestine testing facilities all of a sudden? We know the Obama administration is going to announce something big tomorrow regarding self-driving cars—perhaps even a national policy that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the USDOT wasn’t working on. Maybe this piece was timed for publication just as Google is about to go public with its plans for working with automakers. At the end of the story, Urmson says with plenty of certainty that it will be less than four years before we can hand Google the keys for good.

[Read the whole story at Backchannel]

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Follow the author at @awalkerinLA