Video: Epic rides in the first Google Self-Driving Car, at TED2011

Above, Chris Fralic and friends take a tire-squealing ride in the Google self-driving car in spring 2011. Warning, profanity and lots of it. More video below.

At TED2011, Sebastian Thrun from Google told us why he wanted to make a self-driving car: “Most automotive deaths are due to human error, not machine error. A driverless car can save lives.” Google’s driverless car uses AI so it can detect objects nearby and in its path, as well as control its speed, direction and destination.

Google was letting people test-ride the cars right outside the theatre, and I knew I couldn’t pass up the chance. Walking up the stairs to the roof deck of the parking lot, we heard the screeching of tires on concrete. Just as we reached the top, a seafoam-green Prius whipped around the corner, tires squealing. Nobody was driving.

After some nervous questioning of the daring Googlers (lots of “I wonders…”), and watching a few people safely exit the car post-ride, I climbed into the vehicle with two other TEDsters, and away we went, watching the wheel turn itself as the car barreled around cones and corners. I would like to report that I was bubbling with excitement, smiling gleefully during the whole ride, but my attempt at bravery gave way to unbridled, white-knuckle fear. There was some screaming. My two fellow passengers seemed oddly calm, though I’d like to believe their nervous smiles simply masked their fright. The Google rep in the driver’s seat had his hands folded neatly in his lap, his face calm and nearly without expression, though I’m positive I heard him giggling at my childish whimpers as we whipped around the corner. Next to the steering wheel, a screen flickered with an animation of the car’s path, and couldn’t help but feel this car had a mind of its own.

After the ride, I jumped out of the car and asked when I would find one of these at my neighborhood car dealer (can they sell themselves too?). The self-driving cars are still about 10 years away from mass production, despite the technology feeling pretty spot-on to me. I look forward to the day when these cars are the norm; especially as an LA driver, the potential for more efficient roads as a result of minimizing lane width on freeways (because of the elimination of human error) is fabulous. Not to mention the implications these cars have for road safety.

Since my ride, I’ve had many conversations with friends and family about the experience. Most people respond with a Terminator-fueled skepticism: “Well, I just wouldn’t trust a machine with my life.” It’s an understandable concern, but to be honest, I don’t necessarily trust myself with my life! I am so much more likely to make a mistake behind the wheel than a machine programmed exactly not to. But for those of you concerned about armies of intelligent Priuses taking over mankind, not to worry. It’ll be a few years.

Wonder what it’s like to ride in a driverless car — with Sergey Brin’s then mother-in-law inside it? TED speaker Margaret Gould Stewart took one of the very first rides in the car. Again, there is swearing and a lot of nervous laughter.


Want a little less swearing and a little more context? This well-edited clip shows the hands-free wheel, the in-car monitor and some exterior shots of the car in action. Still plenty of squealing tire action!