The District of Columbia got a taste of the future Friday morning when two D.C. Councilmembers and Council staff test-drove a driverless car.
The group didn't actually drive the car but were transported by two Google engineers on a 10-block, six minute jaunt near Google's New York Avenue headquarters in Northwest.
Except for a silver laser scanner on the roof, a radar on the front and a global positioning device on the back, the Prius looks like a normal four-door sedan. Prior to the test-drive, Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) were briefed by Google staff who explained how the car works, detailed how far back the team has been working, and plans for the future. Staffers also answered their questions, Cheh said.
"It was fantastic, mind-boggling for all the technology in place," she said. "It's incredible. The potential seems limitless."
Cheh, 61, said she made sure to have the driver take his hands off the steering wheel and turn around to talk to her while the car was in motion so she could see the car actually steer itself. All the information the laser and sensors "see" are processed by a computer. The results were shown on a laptop on the passenger seat. The sensors handle millions of bits of information at any given time, and Cheh and Wells and the others watched as the computer processed signs, cones, barriers, pedestrians and other vehicles in real-time.
Wells, 55, expressed total confidence in the technology before taking the ride.
"I really do trust the technology," he said. "A man who's blind has been using the car to go to work. If he's willing to do it, I will too. We're just going to get in the car and let it drive itself ... I tell you, I trust that car more than I trust most drivers."
An engineer explained that the car – which came from its California home base – has been taken through 100 test runs over 250,000 miles since 2008
To date, one of the engineers said, there had been no accidents or collisions, with Cheh adding that the only accident occurred when a human was driving the car.
Engineers and technicians have been driving the Prius hybrid around the District of Columbia for two weeks. The city offers an excellent urban setting in which to test the engineering prototype, another engineer said. Two engineers who are in the car during test runs focus on development and technology and mapping the data.
"This is real driving. We're seeing how the car deals with the environment and [we] study the data," the engineer said. "D.C. driving is very difficult. Coming here was great for the drivers. We have learned a lot. The nature of urban driving is interesting. We have bicyclists, people crossing the street, D.C. construction, people jaywalking – complex environments."
The Google team has been working with eight Prius prototypes and one Lexus and experimenting with different platforms. The car could be available to the public in about two years.
In response to why the car was developed at all, engineers said that it will likely transform safety.
Both legislators said the most obvious benefit of this technology is the significant reduction in car accidents.
"There are many thousands of deaths each year caused by human error. This could lower the number of deaths considerably," Cheh said. "Councilmember Wells asked if the car would be able to detect a child running into the street after a ball, and he was told that any object up to 4 inches will be detected."
"It will have an extraordinary impact on parking and driving. It completely eliminates road rage, [and] distracted drivers, who are texting and eating. Someone said 20 percent of food is consumed in cars."
"The car doesn't eat, get distracted, get angry or shout at other people," he said. "The car is focused on getting you there safely," he said.
Wells and Cheh said they're imagining life with a driverless car and are intrigued by the prospects. In addition to the possibility of fewer car accidents, they talked about multiple uses with fewer cars, less pollution, and less headaches looking for parking.
"I was surprised of the degree to which it was so normal," said Wells. " ... I'm imagining that the car will drive around without a driver and it can come back for you by being summoned. It's amazing ... the people who should feel threatened are taxi drivers. The future is bright."