SAN FRANCISCO — Google's self-driving cars have hit another milestone on the road to the automotive future, notching two million miles on the autonomous-testing odometer.
That mark, which the Alphabet-owned company announced Wednesday, was hit as other companies spent the summer dominating the self-driving headlines. Uber recently began picking up Pittsburgh passengers in its small fleet of driverless (though driver-monitored) vehicles, while Ford announced plans to sell transportation that lacked a steering wheel and pedals by 2021.
The path towards robotic transport — so-called Level 5 autonomy, where humans need not get involved — is what the project has been traveling on for more than seven years. And despite rivals suggesting that autonomy is around the corner, Google's self-driving car lead says his team is no where near finished with the hard work of making computers drive better than humans.
"There's definitely a lot of things being said in the media, but my personal opinion is it's a lot of noise and ambiguity," project lead Dmitri Dolgov tells USA TODAY. Dolgov was in at the 2009 ground floor of the program and takes over after the abruptdeparture of longtime technical lead Chris Urmson.
"I find the terminology is over-loaded, and there are big gaps between what’s out there and what's working," he says. "But it’s exciting."
Dolgov's point is clear. Upstarts may claim that they can develop self-driving technology by leveraging increasingly sophisticated machine-learning algorithms, but nothing replaces the simple and often boring task of trolling the streets of Mountain View, Calif., Phoenix, Phoenix and Kirkland, Wash.
While Google's engineers have refined their systems by running many millions of miles of virtual testing, it remains a poor second place to encountering and processing real-world road encounters that range from a woman chasing ducks with a broom to buses failing to yield. In fact, the handful of accidents suffered by Google's cars to date have, so far, all been the result of human negligence on the part of the other drivers.
"It's easy to build car that's always in paranoid mode," Dolgov says with a laugh. "Reacting to the world is the core of the challenge, reacting smoothly."
In truth, rides in Google's self-driving Lexus vehicles do feel like driving with your overly cautious grandmother.
But Dolgov insists that the cars have come a long way in the past year, and now are programmed to drive more like assertive adults. What's more, Google engineers have been working to ensure that their vehicles can process the digital data coming in from various radar, laser and camera data and translate that into their real counterparts, whether that's a cyclist waving a hand or an unexpected set of construction cones.
"The social interactions that cars have are many, there are stop signs, there's merging into a gap, dealing with jaywalkers, so much," he says. "If there’s a kid chasing a ball into the street, the car has to understand that's different from a jogger in the road."
Dolgov is resolute that the future is not a car that offers a driver self-driving assistance, but rather a vehicle where the computer is in full control. That's a position echoed by Ford CTO Raj Nair, who said the reason Ford Motor Company is leaping to develop a Level 5 car is that the handoff from computer to human while driving is just too risky.
Tesla's Autopilot system provides that sort of Level 2 assistance, allowing the car to drive itself on highways and even change lanes on its own. Recent Tesla crashes that may have involved the software program, which Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently upgraded, are being investigated by federal regulators.
"In 2012, we ran a test with Google employees who got a car from us that would occasionally need them to take control," says Dolgov. "What we learned in that pilot strongly influenced our decision (to shoot for Level 5). People are really bad at that, they’ll over-trust the system. They’ll do crazy things in the car, fall asleep. Raj is correct. If system doesn’t work all of the time, how do you make sure driver is capable of really taking over? Well, that's why we’re focused on having no driver."
The self-driving future seems less like sci-fi and more like an inevitability, and that's something the government wants to get a grip on early. Dolgov says he welcomes the new Department of Transportation guidelines for self-driving car companies, though he's still "going through all 116 pages. I will say that trying to make sure we don't have different rules in different states is a good thing."
California's Department of Motor Vehicles has yet to rule on whether it will allow self-driving cars without a steering wheel or pedals, a position that would great impact the Mountain View-based company's ability to test near its headquarters.
"I certainly second the excitement, after all, this is the most important thing I’ll do in my life," he says. "And I'm glad the technology is being taken seriously. But I would urge people to be careful about distinguishing between the the different levels of autonomy and making inferences about our the readiness of full autonomy just based on quick progress of today’s tech."