(Repeats story issued earlier with no changes to text)
By Paul Ingrassia
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. Aug 17 The car stopped at
stop signs. It glided around curves. It didn't lurch or jolt.
The most remarkable thing about the drive was that it was
This isn't damning with faint praise. It's actually high
praise for the car in question: Google Inc.'s
Most automotive test drives (of which I've done dozens while
covering the car industry for nearly 30 years) are altogether
There's a high-horsepower car. A high-testosterone
automotive engineer. And a high-speed race around a test track
by a boy-racer journalist eager to prove that, with just a few
more breaks, he really could have been, you know, a NASCAR
This test drive, in contrast, took place on the placid
streets of Mountain View, the Silicon Valley town that houses
The engineers on hand weren't high-powered "car guys" but
soft-spoken Alpha Geeks of the sort that have emerged as the
Valley's dominant species. And there wasn't any speeding even
though, ironically, Google's engineers have determined that
speeding actually is safer than going the speed limit in some
"Thousands and thousands of people are killed in car
accidents every year," said Dmitri Dolgov, the project's boyish
Russian-born lead software engineer, who now is a U.S.
citizen, describing his sense of mission. "This could change
Dolgov, who's 36 years old, confesses that he drives a
Subaru instead of a high-horsepower beast. Not once during an
hour-long conversation did he utter the words "performance,"
"horsepower," or "zero-to-60," which are mantras at every other
new-car test drive. Instead Dolgov repeatedly invoked
"autonomy," the techie term for cars capable of driving
Google publicly disclosed its driverless car program in
2010, though it began the previous year. It's part of the
company's "Google X" division, overseen directly by co-founder
Sergey Brin and devoted to "moon shot" projects by the Internet
company, as Dolgov puts it, that might take years, if ever, to
So if there's a business plan for the driverless car, Google
isn't disclosing it. Dolgov, who recently "drove" one of his
autonomous creations the 450 miles (725 km) or so from Silicon
Valley to Tahoe and back for a short holiday, simply says his
mission is to perfect the technology, after which the business
model will fall into place.
NOT WINNING BEAUTY CONTESTS, YET
Judging from my non-eventful autonomous trek through
Mountain View, the technology easily handles routine driving.
The car was a Lexus RX 450h, a gas-electric hybrid crossover
vehicle - with special modifications, of course.
There's a front-mounted radar sensor for collision
avoidance. And more conspicuously, a revolving cylinder perched
above the car's roof that's loaded with lasers, cameras, sensors
and other detection and guidance gear. The cylinder is affixed
with ugly metal struts, signaling that stylistic grace, like the
business plan, has yet to emerge.
But function precedes form here, and that rotating cylinder
is a reasonable replacement for the human brain (at least some
human brains) behind the wheel of a car.
During the 25-minute test ride the "driver's seat" was
occupied by Brian Torcellini, whose title, oddly, is "Lead Test
Driver" for the driverless car project.
Before joining Google the 30-year-old Torcellini, who
studied at San Diego State University, had hoped to become a
"surf journalist." Really. Now he's riding a different kind of
wave. He sat behind the test car's steering wheel just in case
something went awry and he had to revert to manual control. But
that wasn't necessary.
Dolgov, in the front passenger's seat, entered the desired
destination to a laptop computer that was wired into the car.
The car mapped the route and headed off. The only excitement,
such as it was, occurred when an oncoming car seemed about to
turn left across our path. The driverless car hit the brakes,
and the driver of the oncoming car quickly corrected course.
I sat in the back seat, not my usual test-driving position,
right behind Torcellini. The ride was so smooth and uneventful
that, except for seeing his hands, I wouldn't known that the car
was completely piloting itself - steering, stopping and starting
- lock, stock and dipstick.
Google's driverless car is programmed to stay within the
speed limit, mostly. Research shows that sticking to the speed
limit when other cars are going much faster actually can be
dangerous, Dolgov says, so its autonomous car can go up to 10
mph (16 kph) above the speed limit when traffic conditions
'NOT A TOY'
In addition to the model I tested - and other such adapted
versions of conventional cars - Google also has built little
bubble-shaped test cars that lack steering wheels, brakes and
accelerator pedals. They run on electricity, seat two people and
are limited to going 25 mph (40 kph.) In other words,
self-driving golf carts.
Google's isn't the only driverless car in development. One
of the others is just a few miles away at Stanford University
(where Dolgov did post-doctoral study.) Getting the cars to
recognize unusual objects and to react properly in abnormal
situations remain significant research challenges, says
professor J. Christian Gerdes, faculty director of Stanford's
REVS Institute for Automotive Research.
Beyond that, there are "ethical issues," as he terms them.
"Should a car try to protect its occupants at the expense of
hitting pedestrians?" Gerdes asks. "And will we accept it when
machines make mistakes, even if they make far fewer mistakes
than humans? We can significantly reduce risk, but I don't
think we can drive it to zero."
That issue, in turn, raises the question of who is liable
when a driverless car is involved in a collision - the car's
occupants, the auto maker or the software company. Legal issues
might be almost as vexing as technical ones, some experts
Self-driving cars could appear on roads by the end of this
decade, predicted a detailed report on the budding driverless
industry issued late last year by investment bank Morgan Stanley
. Other experts deem that forecast extremely optimistic.
But cars with "semi-autonomous" features, such as
collision-avoidance radar that maintains a safe distance from
the car ahead, are already on the market. And the potential
advantages - improved safety, less traffic congestion and more -
are winning converts to the autonomy cause.
"This is not a toy," declared the Morgan Stanley research
report. "The social and economic implications are enormous."
For video of a car similar to the one tested, see reut.rs/YfiJez
Paul Ingrassia, managing editor of Reuters, is the author of
three books on automobiles, and has been covering the industry
since 1985. The car he drives is ... a red one.
(Reporting by Paul Ingrassia; Editing by Frances Kerry)