The first rule of riding in Google’s self-driving car, says Dmitri Dolgov, is not to compliment Google’s self-driving car. We’ve been cruising the streets of Mountain View for about ten minutes. Dolgov, the car’s software lead, is sitting shotgun. Brian Torcellini, the project’s lead test driver (read: “driver”), is sitting behind the wheel (yes, there is a wheel). He is doing no more to guide the vehicle than I’m doing from the backseat. I have just announced that so far the trip has been “amazingly smooth.”
“The car knows,” says Dolgov.
He means I have violated some code of robotic superstition, calling the contest too early. Or maybe he means my praise serves no function here. If I can tell how well the car is driving itself, so can the car.
Google’s self-driving car project began in 2009. The vehicle’s early life was confined almost entirely to California highways. Hundreds of thousands of test miles later, the car more or less has mastered the art — rather, the computer science — of staying in its lane and keeping its speed. So about a year and a half ago, Google’s team shifted focus from the predictable sweep of freeways to the unpredictable maze of city streets. I was invited along as the first journalist to witness how the car is handling its new urban lifestyle.