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Hit the Kill Switch? Inside Google's Driverless Car

May 13, 2014

Driverless Cars-Google

A Google driverless car navigating along a street in Mountain View, California on April 22. Photographer: Google via AP Photo

One of the first things I noticed during my ride today in one of Google's driverless cars was the big red kill button between the two front seats.

During my 20-minute demo, we never needed the button. In fact, the ride was so smooth that I soon forgot it was there.

Safety will be a selling point for driverless cars. Human error accounts for the vast majority of traffic accidents, research has shown. But if you remove the human, is the technology good enough to make the roads safer?

It's too soon to tell, but that's not stopping Google, as well as automakers such as Toyota and General Motors, from touting the technology. One demographic seen as a potentially big customer of these types of vehicles is the elderly. That has companies eyeing countries such as Japan, which is the world's fastest-aging major economy.

Chris Urmson, project director, said he'd like to see the vehicle ready for prime time in six years, when his son is ready to drive. He added that Google is in talks with vehicle manufacturers about self-driving cars.

To get a sense of how the technology currently performs, Google invited several journalists to the Computer History Museum near the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California, for a trip around town.

To my surprise, the ride wasn't jerky and there weren't any sudden movements. Whether the car was changing lanes or making turns, the vehicle seemed to do it with the right amount of acceleration.

On one street that runs next to the heart of Google's headquarters, it glided along for several hundred feet before coming to a red light. It came almost to a complete stop before pausing to ensure it wasn't too abrupt. Then, it came to a soft stop.

Like a human driver, it was careful to accelerate only somewhat with another stoplight -- just a few car lengths ahead -- which was showing red. It then navigated a complex stoplight at Central Expressway that included a railroad crossing. It was here that the technology showed an abundance of caution. It gave the Mini Cooper in front of us several car lengths of room, a distance most folks wouldn't give. The tester with Google, who accompanied me on the ride, said the car is more cautious around railroad tracks.

After getting back onto Shoreline Boulevard, one of the main streets in the area, the car followed other vehicles at a more normal distance. And it slowed down when it came near a bicyclist on the right, before swinging out slightly to avoid the rider. When it comes to sharing the road, humans could learn a thing or two from this technology.

Granted, this demo didn't occur on the congested streets of Tokyo, but slow and steady (and safe) seem to be the keys to winning this race. That kill button may not get a lot of use.


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