Last week, I went for a ride in a goofy-looking self-driving car that had no steering wheel, no accelerator and no brakes and returned to tell the tale.
It wasn’t the first time I took a ride in one of Google’s self-driving cars. A few weeks ago, I sat in the backseat of a modified Lexus SUV, where it felt perfectly normal not to have any control over where the car was going. Sure, I could see that the person in the driver’s seat didn’t have his hands on the wheel, and I believed him when he said he wasn’t using his feet on the pedals. But aside from the invisible technology at work, it was like any other ride.
This was different. Kara Swisher and I were lured to Google last week with the promise that we’d see something really exciting and surprising. We climbed into one of Google’s white self-driving Lexus SUVs and bided our time in the backseat wondering just what would be revealed. (A time machine? A space elevator? A talking dog?) Our un-driver for the day was Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s five-year-old self-driving-car project.
The Lexus navigated itself around Google to the nearby Shoreline Amphitheatre, an outdoor concert venue. The weekend’s headliner was the Backstreet Boys, but we were very early, so their teen girl fans (if they still exist?) had not appeared just yet. We had a bit of privacy in broad daylight.
We pulled up to the Shoreline’s VIP parking lot, which was surrounded by hillside berms. We looked a little closer and saw Google employees crouched at various points in the bushes making sure our self-driving car was the only one that got in.
And there it was. The future of automotive travel. Down in the parking lot, we caught sight of a little two-seater clown car zipping back and forth. There was nobody in it.
Google’s next big thing is a self-driving car they built from scratch.
Unlike the self-driving Lexus that had shuttled us here — modified with repurposed cruise control sensors and a third-party spinning laser on top, rewired to respond to computer input but otherwise the exact same car anyone else could buy and drive — this little car was all Google.
From the outside, the new car looked like a gondola with wheels. From the front, it resembled a cartoon face, with two headlights forming the eyes and a cute little button nose sensor in the middle. This was done on purpose, Urmson told us — it’s meant to be friendly.
Urmson opened the car door and beckoned us to climb in. Kara and I took our places on the cushy orange seats and buckled our repurposed old seat belts.
We stretched our legs in the ample room (we’re both short, so it was very ample). It dawned on us that all the car stuff that would normally be right in front of us was missing. There was no steering wheel, no accelerator and no brakes. Just a little screen showing the time, the weather, the current speed and an animation counting down the three minutes of circling around the parking lot we were about to start.
On the center console, there were just two buttons: One to start the car and one to tell it to make an emergency stop.
Kara and I were the only ones in the car. Since neither of us has very good self-preservation instincts, we pressed go.
With its new cargo onboard, the car went back to its pre-programmed joyride around the parking lot, looping us back and forth and around like it was on a track. It zoomed up to 25 miles per hour.
Kara and I didn’t really know what to think. We were utterly and totally along for the ride. A few margaritas would’ve been nice, we thought. We wondered whether it would be legal to have open containers in a moving vehicle if it was being driven by a machine.
Kara supposed we should give the car a name — how about something friendly, like Phyllis? — and maybe include some funny running audio commentary about the road and the activities of nearby drivers.
Zipping around the parking lot, I can’t say I felt scared about being out of control. It was fun. But I also can’t say it was an easy mental leap to imagine that the future would hold streets full of these bubble cars — some with passengers, others completely empty. Kara and I agreed that this felt a lot like a theme park ride.
We came back around toward the pack of Googlers that set us off on this pioneer journey. Urmson and company sauntered out for the climactic big reveal, the grand finale: Stepping directly into our trajectory.
Just as it has been trained to do, the car recognized the obstacle ahead and slowed to a halt so Kara and I were not not-responsible for running over the Googlers. They walked away and we resumed the joyride.
Soon enough, our three minutes were up, and the car brought us back to its creators. A little departure message appeared on the screen, telling us it hoped we had enjoyed the ride and to collect our belongings. Just like a theme park ride.
We got out, and the car quickly loaded itself onto a truck away from view. We told Urmson we would like some margaritas next time, so we could safely enjoy the pleasures of drinking while driving. And perhaps in our next ride we would remember to take our eyes off the road and pull out our phones and text people while driving.
“Sure,” Urmson said, “but it’s texting and drinking while not driving.”