How Google passed its driving test – just

Author

Matthew Sparkes Deputy Head of Technology

September 12, 2014

Details of the ‘driving test’ carried out by Google’s driverless car reveal that it passed despite human engineers having to take control at two points during the 22km drive

One day driverless cars may do away with the nerve-wracking rite of passage that is taking your driving test, but before that happens they will have to undergo thousands of their own.

Newly-released documents reveal the results of the first official test of Google’s driverless car: it passed, but it wasn’t plain sailing, and humans had to step in and take control twice.

Google’s driverless cars have only ever been tested by the US government once on open roads. That was on May 1, 2012, when one of them took its “driving test” in Las Vegas.

Although some details have been made public before (the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles announced within days that the car had passed, for instance) this new information reveals that Google was allowed to choose the route itself because certain conditions confused the car. A courtesy which is extended to no human.

It was also allowed to stipulate that the test took place on a clear, dry day, because bad weather could prove too large a challenge. Despite this, human engineers still had to grab the controls at two points.

The car, a 2008 Toyota Prius, with the number plate “AU 001”, went on trial with Chris Urmson in the driving seat – the man who has now moved up to head the company’s whole driverless car programme. Google engineer Anthony Levandowski was in the passenger seat and two government examiners sat in the rear seats.

A special test was designed for the trial which looked at whether the car could handle various different situations fully autonomously or if humans had to intervene. Under the “pedestrian traffic” section, for example, examiners ticked the “autonomous” box and noted that the car displayed “great recognition” of nearby humans.

Under the “traffic light” section the car performed equally well, staying in fully-automated mode, but the examiner noted that it was “perhaps overly cautious approaching some lights”.

Some areas were not tested at all; roundabouts, for instance, where Google engineers told examiners in emails prior to the test that “many [human] drivers don’t know the proper rules in the first place”. Under “road construction signs” the car scored less well, apparently requiring human assistance when it came across a blocked road, got confused and simply stopped.

Spectrum, which gained access to the documents under a Freedom of Information request, reports that there were unexpected moments during the 22km drive: at one point a cyclist swerved in front of the car, at another a pedestrian stepped out without looking. It handled both situations well.

Having passed the test Google’s car was awarded a special gold-on-red autonomous license plate which allowed it to carry out further trials in the state. However, Google seems to have done little testing there, focusing instead on California where the bulk of its software engineers are based.

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