Google's Driverless Car Hits D.C. Streets

Barrington M. Salmon | 5/23/2012, 11:45 a.m.

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.