As Google has expanded throughout Mountain View over the past decade, its repurposed office buildings have developed a certain sameness: perfectly mundane exteriors, accented by the multicolored Google bikes scattered outside. Building RSL2 is different: it was previously known as the Mayfield Mall, and for that reason, its roof is an enormous multilevel parking lot. On this day, there isn’t a car in sight — and if you live in the Bay Area, where parking spaces are conserved as zealously as water in Mad Max: Fury Road, it looks a little like the promised land.
And then something comes into view from across the lot. Something small and purposeful, moving toward you at an eminently reasonable speed. Its movements are self-assured and weirdly dignified, like those of a show horse. It sidles up alongside you, and a person opens the door and invites you in. This is Google’s latest self-driving car prototype. It has no driver, no steering wheel, and no foot brakes. Instead it has a central console with a big black button. Press it, and it drives itself.
Media day is part of Google’s carefully coordinated, multi-year public relations campaign on behalf of autonomous vehicles. It was led by John Krafcik, former CEO of Hyundai America, who took over as the project’s CEO earlier this month. Krafcik introduced a series of speakers including Chris Urmson, the project’s longtime director, and Jamie Waydo, the lead systems engineer.
In a surprise, Google co-founder Sergey Brin stopped by the day’s proceedings and took questions from reporters eager to understand how Google would overcome regulatory obstacles and bring its cars to market. "In the past year or so, I’ve been really happy about the progress we’ve made," said Brin, looking relaxed in black shorts, a long-sleeved blue shirt, and a beat-up pair of Crocs. "And I think that the potential for cars to change the ways communities work, to give access to a lot of people who are underserved by transportation today — I think that day is coming closer, and I’m super excited by it."
Speakers recounted the history of the program, explained the technology behind autonomous driving, and covered the safety features of its latest prototype in numbing detail. The prototype’s sensors allow it to see 200 meters in all directions, eliminating blind spots. It’s programmed to drive defensively, actively avoiding other drivers’ blind spots and easing away from big rigs and motorcycles that are splitting lanes. As in an airplane, its critical systems are redundant, providing backup for steering and braking. And the prototype also has safety baked into its materials: the windshield is flexible, and the front end is made out of custom foam.
But the main event at media day was a ride in the latest prototype, the charming little two-seater that has been compared to everything from a gumdrop to Flappy Bird. (OK technically I am the one who compared it to Flappy Bird, but I was right, and also those 10 retweets don’t lie.) The point is that the thing is cute, a word I am doing my best to use in a descriptive rather than critical sense. It is designed to be adorable, so as to appear more trustworthy.