Google's Self-Driving Cars Are Not Always So Hands Off

If you visit Mountain View, California, home to Google, you will likely soon see one of Google’s self-driving cars whizzing by. They are everywhere in that town, having logged over 700,000 autonomous miles since 2009.

But just how safe are they? They famously passed a driving test in 2012 in Nevada and were issued a licence.

Now it turns out that Google had a whole lot of say about the conditions of that test in Nevada and twice during the test, Google engineers had to take control of the car, emails and test documents obtained by the IEEE Spectrum show (the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers association).

For instance, Google mapped the route of the test and told the Nevada tester ” … the vehicles currently do not operate in snow, ice, or dense fog.” Those conditions were not a problem in Las Vegas in May when the test took place. Had Nevada tested the car in a different part of the state, like Reno, at a different time of year, like March, things could have been different.

While the car did amazingly well in some unexpected circumstances — stopping for pedestrians, avoiding a swerving bicycle, merging smoothly onto a freeway — it was less great in other areas: It couldn’t do a roundabout, the documents show.

And it couldn’t navigate a construction zone with a partially blocked road. When it had problems, it “switched between autonomous and manual modes and then braked to a halt,” the IEEE Spectrum’s Mark Harris reported.

Here are the notes from the test showing it had stopped:

Head of the self-driving car project Chris Urmson was in the driver’s seat. When the car braked to a halt, Urmson took over.

That test took place two years ago, and since then Google says it has taught the car a lot of new tricks including how to get through construction zones.

Google showed off this new skill in a recent YouTube video: This is an actual car driving through a cone zone.

Google self-driving car constructionYouTube/GoogleGoogle self-driving car navigating a construction zone

Meanwhile, as more companies explore autonomous vehicles, and Google decides to take its fleet beyond the roads of Mountain View, regulations governing the self-driving car industry will come into effect on California’s roads starting Sept. 16.

Here’s the full video that shows the state-of-the-art of Google’s self-driving car as of April:

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