Google Car - Behind the Wheel
Guess who was giving people free rides in their robot car? I'll give you a clue: rhymes with "holy crap this is awesome...oogle."

Dammit, I really need to attend TED. The annual Technology Entertainment Design conference always has tons of great presenters, but this year they also had something better: Google’s autonomous car. On a specially designed outdoor course in Long Beach, Google allowed press to not only film the robot vehicle, they were also handing out rides inside the car itself. Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land grabbed two sweet videos, providing an external and internal view of how the autonomous vehicle can perform on a closed track. Check them both out below. Despite the fact that I’m eating my heart out from jealousy while watching Sullivan’s excursion, I’m still pretty skeptical that Google will be able to market their car anytime soon. These videos demonstrate the awesome engineering of the project, but I still haven’t seen anything that lets me believe that the social and legal barriers opposing robot automobiles are falling. More’s the pity.

Here’s the interior view. Man, what I would give to get a chance to be in that front seat. Hands free is the only way I want to drive!

The exterior view gives a better idea of the car’s speed. Not bad for a Prius! Those turns give a great squeal. Awesome.

Reportedly, Google’s robotic fleet has been tested using very conservative driving schemes when taken on public roads. As I mentioned when this project was first unveiled back in the fall, Google’s traveled 140,000 miles in their autonomous vehicles, but that’s been really tame driving with a lot of supervision. The test track on TED is something else. With the ability to preprogram the driving course in very controlled conditions, Google is able to let its robot car tear up the track as best as it can. Pretty impressive, and much closer to performances we’ve seen from other robotic car programs, such as the one from Volkswagen and Stanford.

This performance just shows that Google’s team of world-class experts is excelling at the engineering side of things. Sebastian Thrun, the project’s leader, was on hand at TED giving some more details about Google’s motivations and successes- we’ll definitely throw that presentation up once it goes public.

Yet I would be happier if Google also had an elite team of psychologists, publicists, and lawyers working in parallel with their autonomous car project. (Maybe they do? I’d love to hear about it if anyone has inside information on this.) As I’ve stated ad nauseum, creating robotic vehicles won’t matter much if you can’t convince people (and their governments) to accept putting human lives in the ‘hands’ of these bots. Some nation is going to lead the way with this, either by steam-rolling opposition or convincing the public through good PR. That nation is going to reap the benefits of automated driving (lower casualties, higher fuel efficiencies, great convenience) and is likely to set the standards the rest of the globe will adopt as they come on board with the idea. I have little doubt that Silicon Valley will lead the way in engineering. For my sake (yes, I’m petty like that) I hope that Google and the US leap the social/legal hurdle first as well. I’d love to ride on an automated highway as soon as possible.

In the meantime…Google, if you ever want me to ‘test drive’ one of your cars, you just tell me where and when. I promise to shut up about my social/legal hurdle theory for the entirety of the ride. I make no such claims about throwing my hands in the air and screaming “wheeeeeee” however. There are limits to my will power.

[screen capture and video credits: SearchEngineLand/Danny Sullivan]
[source: SearchEngineLand, Google Blog]