Google’s driver­less car driv­ers ride a ca­reer less trav­eled

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY MICHAEL LIEDTKE

Af­ter a friend rec­om­mended that he join a se­cret Google pro­ject six years ago, Brian Tor­cellini sud­denly found him­self on the road to an oc­cu­pa­tional oxy­moron. He be­came a driver in a driver­less car.

Tor­cellini, 31, leads a crew of test, or “safety,” driv­ers who are legally re­quired to ride in Google’s fleet of 48 ro­bot cars. They only take con­trol in emer­gen­cies. Oth­er­wise, they make ob­ser­va­tions that help the In­ter­net com­pany’s engi­neers pro­gram the cars to nav­i­gate the roads with­out hu­man as­sis­tance.

“A lot of peo­ple go to work and sit in a cu­bi­cle,” Tor­cellini says. “Our cube just hap­pens to move around the roads. And if we are suc­cess­ful, we are go­ing to put our­selves out of a job.”

The driver­less cars al­ready have logged more than 3.2 mil­lion kilo­me­ters (2 mil­lion miles) in six years of some­times te­dious test­ing on pri­vate tracks, highways and city streets lo­cated mostly near Google’s Moun­tain View, Cal­i­for­nia, head­quar­ters.

The ve­hi­cles have trav­eled more than half that dis­tance in au­to­mated mode, with one test driver in place to take con­trol of the car if the tech­nol­ogy fails or a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion arises. Mean­while, another driver sits in the front pas­sen­ger seat typ­ing notes about prob­lems that need to be fixed and traf­fic sce­nar­ios that need to be stud­ied.

“I don’t want to com­pare my­self to an as­tro­naut, but it kind of feels like that some­times,” says Google test driver Ryan Espinosa while rid­ing in an au­to­mated Lexus that re­cently took an As­so­ci­ated Press re­porter on a 20-minute ride around town with­out re­quir­ing any hu­man in­ter­ven­tion.

If the tech­nol­ogy ad­vances as Google en­vi­sions, the only peo­ple sit­ting in driver­less cars by 2020 will be pas­sen­gers look­ing for an eas­ier way to get around.

Even fewer test driv­ers will be work­ing be­cause the driver­less cars will be com­pletely au­ton­o­mous, elim­i­nat­ing the need for the ve­hi­cles to be equipped with steer­ing wheels or brake ped­als. Ev­ery­thing will be con­trolled through a com­bi­na­tion of sen­sors, lasers, soft­ware and in­tri­cate maps — a vi­sion that could very well leave many of Google’s test driv­ers look­ing for a new line of work.

The job re­quires a sense of ad­ven­ture, some­thing Tor­cellini ac­quired when he be­gan to surf in high school. His other pas­sions in­clude spear fish­ing and scuba div­ing, which he likens to the sen­sa­tion he gets when he climbs into one of Google’s self-driv­ing cars and pushes the but­ton that ac­ti­vates the ve­hi­cle’s ro­botic con­trols.

“When you go scuba div­ing and take a mo­ment to re­ally think about it, you re­al­ize you are do­ing some­thing that isn’t sup­posed to be hu­manly pos­si­ble: you are breath­ing un­der­wa­ter,” Tor­cellini says. “It’s the same kind of feel­ing you get in one of these cars. It’s not sup­posed to be hu­manly pos­si­ble.”

While the engi­neers who are pro­gram­ming the ro­bot cars have tech­ni­cal back­grounds, most of the test driv­ers don’t. Tor­cellini worked in a drug store ware­house while get­ting his de­gree in po­lit­i­cal science at San Diego State Univer­sity. He dreamed of pur­su­ing a ca­reer writ­ing about surf­ing. He ended up at Google in 2009 af­ter a friend who worked for the com­pany sug­gested he in­ter­view for an open­ing on a then-se­cret pro­ject.

Espinosa, 27, was work­ing in a bi­cy­cle shop be­fore he was hired as a test driver twoand-half years ago. Stephanie Vil­le­gas, 28, was a swim in­struc­tor, knife sharp­ener and bond trader be­fore be­com­ing a test driver. Other test driv­ers are mil­i­tary vet­er­ans and for­mer pho­tog­ra­phers. They all share at least one thing in com­mon: spot­less driv­ing records.

Be­fore they are en­trusted with the cars, Google’s test driv­ers must com­plete three­week train­ing cour­ses. The driv­ers are taught to take con­trol of the ro­bot car when­ever there is any mo­ment of doubt or dan­ger.

Google em­ploys “dozens” of test driv­ers but won’t re­veal the pre­cise num­ber. It’s likely around 100 be­cause Cal­i­for­nia law re­quires two test driv­ers per ve­hi­cle, and Google’s fleet cur­rently con­sists of 25 pod-like cars and 23 Lexuses.

A few of those self-driv­ing cars Google also re­cently be­gan cruis­ing around Austin, Texas, so a few of the test driv­ers are based there.

The crew con­sists of a mix of full-time em­ploy­ees and con­trac­tors, some of whom are even­tu­ally hired by the com­pany.

The driv­ers who start off as con­trac­tors be­gin at US$20 per hour with “many op­por­tu­ni­ties” for overtime when they log more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week, ac­cord­ing to Google’s re­cent help-wanted list­ings posted on Glass­door.com. The driv­ers who be­come em­ploy­ees re­ceive com­pany stock op­tions in ad­di­tion to their salaries, though Google won’t dis­close how much they are paid.

Be­sides hav­ing clean driv­ing records, Google’s test driv­ers say the job re­quires a com­bi­na­tion of good judg­ment, pa­tience and fear­less­ness. The self-driv­ing cars were in 16 ac­ci­dents from May 2010 through Au­gust, but they are be­com­ing more fre­quent as the ve­hi­cles spend more time on public roads. Half of the col­li­sions have hap­pened since Fe­bru­ary — a stretch when the self-driv­ing cars were trav­el­ing an av­er­age of about 16,000 kilo­me­ters (around 10,000 miles) per week on public streets in au­ton­o­mous mode. There have been no ma­jor in­juries re­ported so far.

The self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy hasn’t been to blame for any of the ac­ci­dents, ac­cord­ing to Google, though it says one col­li­sion was caused by an em­ployee who was steer­ing a ro­bot car while run­ning a per­sonal er­rand. In all but three of the ac­ci­dents, Google’s self­driv­ing cars have been rear-ended, a trend that the com­pany be­lieves has to do with the large num­ber of mo­torists who are tex­ting, talk­ing on the phone or oth­er­wise do­ing some­thing be­sides pay­ing at­ten­tion to the roads and their sur­round­ings.

“There are tons of sit­u­a­tions where we see peo­ple who just aren’t very good at driv­ing out there,” Tor­cellini says. “It’s up to us to teach the (ro­bot) cars to be bet­ter than those driv­ers, and even bet­ter than the best driv­ers, too.”

AP

Brian Tor­cellini, Google team leader of driv­ing oper­a­tions, right, poses for photos with ve­hi­cle safety spe­cial­ists Rob Miller, top left, and Ryan Espinosa, next to a ve­hi­cle at a Google of­fice in Moun­tain View, Cal­i­for­nia, Aug. 24. Google em­ploys a few dozen “safety driv­ers” who grab the steer­ing wheel or hit the brakes on a fleet of ro­bot cars that Google’s engi­neers are pro­gram­ming to nav­i­gate the roads with­out hu­man as­sis­tance.

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