Test-driving Google's driverless car: Look, Mom, no hands

Who would have thought 23 years ago when the Roadshow column first appeared that one day I would ride in a driverless car on my morning commute?

Not me, but that’s what took place Tuesday. Two Google workers picked me up at home in West San Jose and ferried me along I-280 and Highway 85 to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Later two others took me and numerous other media types on a 25-minute tour of city streets.

With, for the most part, no hands on the steering wheel.

Got that? No hands.

Hey, driver, sip that cup of hot coffee. Or text your wife. Or finish that report on the laptop. Guilt-free.

Google’s robotic cars have about $150,000 in equipment, including a $70,000 radarlike Lidar system, with a laser on the roof and enough cameras and high-tech gizmos inside to make any Silicon Valley techie envious.

These devices allow the vehicle to generate a detailed 3D map of its environment, based on maps Google has produced, and take pictures of its surroundings to detect other cars, pedestrians, construction zones or other obstacles in its path.

“This is the best part of our job,” said David Kram, the “driver” of the white Lexus 450 hybrid with the funny laser on the roof rotating 360 degrees 10 times per second. “It’s really fun.”

Fun, indeed. A little nerve-racking, too.

The car took a few hard turns into a left-turn lane off Rengstorff Avenue in Mountain View. And once it shuddered at another turn when a nearby bus seemed to confuse the onboard computers.

“It’s not perfection yet,” said Google’s Nick Munley. “But it is definitely safer.”

Before every crosswalk, a voice much more pleasant than Siri’s calmly alerted us to a “crosswalk ahead”. Every pedestrian should love that.

And when traffic ahead slowed, we slowed. No tailgating allowed.

The future of driving is approaching at warp speed. Testing really began in 2009, a mere five years ago.

Google hopes these cars will be available to the public in six years. Others think it will be a decade. But they are on our streets now being tested for the first time, after covering nearly 700,000 miles on highways, mostly in the Bay Area but also in Florida, Nevada, Texas and Washington, D.C.

The accident total: one that was the fault of the driverless vehicle.

Driving on streets is more complicated, and that’s where the majority of the nation’s 33,000 annual traffic deaths occur. About 91 percent of those deaths are the fault of motorists, and safety officials say driverless cars have the potential to prevent most of them.

Driverless cars could prevent “up to 30,000 fatalities a year, or 80 per day,” said Larry Burns, a professor of engineering at the University of Michigan and a Google consultant.

Other drivers treat these cars in a variety of ways. One fellow on Saratoga Avenue got out his phone and began shooting video of us. A CHP officer on the Bay Bridge once pulled over a driverless car and asked, “What is this?”

But others need lessons in road courtesy. Google drivers say other motorists have raced ahead of them, then veered suddenly into their path and slammed on their brakes.

Or they’ve turned sharply into the path of the driverless car without a turn signal to see if it would stop.

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to provide increased mobility for the elderly, the disabled and the blind, like Steve Mahan, one of the first users of Google’s self-driving car. The South Bay man drove around town doing errands without touching the steering wheel.

When out for his drive, he wanted to go to a Taco Bell for a burrito, something he hasn’t been able to do.

A simple thing, but not for someone who can’t see.

Google officials repeatedly said their work is no longer a science project. It’s the realization of a science fiction dream and an opportunity for technology to impact the lives of millions.

“We’re growing more optimistic that we’re heading toward an achievable goal — a vehicle that operates fully without human intervention,” Google project director Chris Urmson wrote in a blog. “The benefits would include fewer accidents, since in principle machines can drive more safely than people.”

Human drivers would be expected to take control if the computer fails. The promise is that, eventually, there would be no need for a driver.

Are we ready? The cost right now is unknown, but would likely be out of the reach of many and more than the $70,000 base price of a Tesla Model S.

But many are confident that eventually the cost will come down.

And 1 in 5 motorists say in a survey they would let computers do the driving. More than a third said an 80 percent discount on car insurance rates would make them “very likely” to purchase an autonomous vehicle, and 90 percent said they would at least consider the idea.

A few years ago, hybrids were a novelty, then electric cars. Now stepping up are driverless vehicles.

Pass the coffee, please.

Look for Gary Richards at Facebook.com/mr.roadshow, follow him at Twitter.com/mrroadshow or contact him at mrroadshow@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5335.