Auto-driving, the friendly female voice from somewhere inside the car’s dashboard announces as we turn on the ignition.
This is not the satnav speaking, however, but our driver. Google calls her The Chauffeur and she is clever enough to navigate her way round the streets of Silicon Valley without human help.
Last week, I became one of the first Britons to go for a spin in Google’s new “driverless” car.
For months, the company has been testing a small fleet of modified Lexus hybrids on public roads near their offices in Mountain View, California. But with trials about to begin in Britain, The Sunday Telegraph wanted to find out just how safe the cars are.
From April, a driverless car based on a Land Rover Defender will be test-driven around the University of the West of England campus in Bristol, while in Milton Keynes, a “pod car” with no steering wheel will be seen humming along at 10 mph down pedestrian areas near the railway station. Trials in Coventry and in Greenwich, south-east London, will follow later in the year.
Like anyone who finds the prospect of a computerised chauffeur slightly worrying, I am comforted by having Priscilla Knox, one of the team’s software engineers, on our drive, ready to take over should anything happen.
Knox programs in our destination – a supermarket 15 minutes away – and tells the car to figure out the quickest route there. Sitting next to her in the front seat is her colleague Jared Mendiola, who is holding a laptop.
On its screen we can see the car’s view of the world, a virtual street dotted with pink boxes that denote cars, yellow boxes that denote pedestrians, red boxes that show cyclists. A green path shows us the intended route. The team has spent the past few months mapping every junction, traffic light, stop sign, speed bump, round-about and zebra crossing in the town to give the vehicle the tools to navigate itself.
The car’s “eyes” are a pair of high-resolution cameras on the side of the car and on the windshield, as well as a radar sensor on the front bumper and a laser mounted on the roof known as the Lidar, which spins at 10 revolutions a second and has 360-degree vision reaching as far as 500 ft – the length of one-and-a-half football pitches. Its “ears” are a pair of microphones near the boot of the car, which listen out for sirens and horns, while sensors on the tyres give it an idea of its width.
For Google, the ultimate aim of the self-driving project is not about saving drivers the bother of motoring, but to make the roads safer by removing human error. Each year there are roughly 33,000 people killed in car accidents in America and 1.2 million worldwide. Ninety-three per cent of those are the result of human error, and 30 per cent are alcohol related.
Google believes its cars could help cut the number in half. “Our driver doesn’t fall asleep on the job,” says Knox. “We’re the most conservative driver on the road as we have programmed it to be defensive.”
The first few seconds of the drive are nerve-racking as Knox flails her arms about to show she is no longer in control.
I find myself thinking like a driving test examiner, knocking off imaginary points when the car hesitates at an empty intersection, or when it slows to a crawl for a group of cyclists who are still some way ahead.
There are occasional jerks as it processes what is going on and how best to respond, but for the most part the drive is smooth. This is especially so when it passes a car waiting to merge into our lane, because it knows we have the right of way.
Just minutes later, the car proves that hunch right. A vehicle in front turning right on a red light fails to spot a jogger crossing the street and comes close to hitting her.
We are all too busy watching the drama unfold to realise we are heading straight for our own jaywalking jogger up ahead. Luckily for us humans, our driver was not distracted and stopped in the nick of time.
That turns out to be the one dramatic moment before we head back to the Google car park. And if it is less exciting than one might expect, that’s not a problem as far as Knox is concerned.
“When people try out the car, they tell us it’s not exactly an exhilarating experience,” she says. “For us that’s a good thing, as it’s about making people feel secure.”