Google Car Drives Like Your Grandma

A resident of Mountain View writes about their interactions with self-driving cars (from the Emerging Technologies Blog):

I see no less than 5 self-driving cars every day. 99% of the time they’re the Google Lexuses, but I’ve also seen a few other unidentified ones (and one that said BOSCH on the side). I have never seen one of the new “Google-bugs” on the road, although I’ve heard they’re coming soon. I also don’t have a good way to tell if the cars were under human control or autonomous control during the stories I’m going to relate.

Anyway, here we go: Other drivers don’t even blink when they see one. Neither do pedestrians – there’s no “fear” from the general public about crashing or getting run over, at least not as far as I can tell.

Google cars drive like your grandma – they’re never the first off the line at a stop light, they don’t accelerate quickly, they don’t speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes (cut people off, etc.).

…Google cars are very polite to pedestrians. They leave plenty of space. A Google car would never do that rude thing where a driver inches impatiently into a crosswalk while people are crossing because he/she wants to make a right turn. However, this can also lead to some annoyance to drivers behind, as the Google car seems to wait for the pedestrian to be completely clear. On one occasion, I saw a pedestrian cross into a row of human-thickness trees and this seemed to throw the car for a loop for a few seconds. The person was a good 10 feet out of the crosswalk before the car made the turn.

…Once, I [on motorcycle, AT] got a little caught out as the traffic transitioned from slow moving back to normal speed. I was in a lane between a Google car and some random truck and, partially out of experiment and partially out of impatience, I gunned it and cut off the Google car sort of harder than maybe I needed too… The car handled it perfectly (maybe too perfectly). It slowed down and let me in. However, it left a fairly significant gap between me and it. If I had been behind it, I probably would have found this gap excessive and the lengthy slowdown annoying. Honestly, I don’t think it will take long for other drivers to realize that self-driving cars are “easy targets” in traffic.

Overall, I would say that I’m impressed with how these things operate. I actually do feel safer around a self-driving car than most other California drivers.

Hat tip: Chris Blattman.


google needs to send them here to the providence-worcester-boston hell-corridor of authentic bad driving. until they've gone through the new england crucible, i withhold judgement.

I presume google cars have enough intelligence to refuse to drive in Boston.

Well, they will be ticketed for blocking traffic.

In many places the old roads and heavy traffic require you to creep into the on coming lane to stop the traffic to turn left, and to do this you can be seen to be looking at the on coming traffic because the driver will know you see him and will speed up and swerve to the right and then back left to get past the nose of your car in half of his lane.

Coming from Indiana to Mass and driving during rush hour which is 7am to 10:30m 11am to 30pm, 3:30pm to 7pm on some of the narrow winding roads with lots of driveways and intersections with no traffic lights - failing to understand I had to ignore all the rules of the road in Indiana, like never turn your wheel into traffic until you can go to prevent a car behind you pushing you into oncoming traffic, I caused a deadlock that led to a cop stuck in traffic getting out to unjam it. Once he realized I was an outsider he just yelled at me.

After that I would drive an extra miles or ten to eliminate left hand turns, go places only after dark, let someone else drive, never go there.

That was 40 years ago, and lots has been spent on roads, including making them even narrower in places, putting it lots more lights, and thanks to immigration from the rest of the US and the world, changed the success of driving aggressively way down, so its not anywhere near as bad.

Still, I agree, Mass suburban roads which are still 70% horse and ox paths will be the test in the US, and if they can't do well there, how can they deal with much of Europe not redeveloped by carpet bombing.

Good description of rush hour around Boston. I love listening to folks around Norfolk complain about traffic - the tunnels stink at rush hour but are almost totally predictable. I wonder how many of them have ever lived anywhere else and would love to see them try the Bourne and Sagamore.

Sometimes they say "self-driving" on the outside, but the person inside is actually driving (you can see their hands turning the wheel).

"Honestly, I don’t think it will take long for other drivers to realize that self-driving cars are “easy targets” in traffic."

I've wondered just that. Once there is a critical mass of self-driving cars, will they be slowed to a crawl as human drivers zip by and cut them off all day long?

It is easy to imagine future roads with 100% self-driving cars, zipping along swiftly, harmoniously, and coordinated.

During the transition, though, I am concerned that human drivers en masse will react exactly the way the author posits. Probably not much of a problem for a while, as the self-driving density is only a fraction of a percent of all traffic, but what will happen once the density eclipses, say, 20%?

I could imagine the self-driving cars being slowed to a crawl, due to their safety algorithms, as human drivers treat them as moving invitations to pass, and estimated travel times for self-driving vehicles reaching multiples of those for human-driven vehicles. Would dedicated lanes and roads become necessary to help keep self driving vehicles practical?

presumably police would know which cars were self-driving, and could aggressively target the human drivers abusing the system. at least, that's how it would work in theory. and have we discussed how strongly the police union will come out against self-driving? think of the lost ticket revenue and overtime.

Perhaps things are different where you live, but where I am, the police hate enforcing traffic laws: there's a very clear "I have better things to do" attitude, and they only write traffic tickets when higher-ups push them to do so. I'm sure the police union here would strongly favor anything that lets them write fewer traffic tickets. $6.2bn a year is a lot of salaries.

Might it help if self-driving cars auto-snitch on bad human drivers, uploading video of their mischief straight to the police? That would certainly make me think twice before exploiting their politeness.

Great - auto narcing by robots. Not to mention that the transition to self drivers starts with an overwhelming flood of accusations flowing to your local police department. My prediction is that they will ignore them all - why not? As the OP pointed out, a world of all self driving cars would be lovely, but it's unlikely that we can get there from here.

Can you imagine the road rage that would be triggered by a self-driving car that is reporting to police? There will be some empty cars riddled with bullets.

You absolutely don't want to rely on human-run police departments. Far better to enlist a few robot assassins to make examples of the worst drivers.

If someone is going to shoot up a car, I absolutely want a google car to goad them into doing it, so they can go to jail.

It's like a bait car, but useful.

Is it to early to start a clearinghouse that buys these tickets and offers to settle with the drivers for a payment, same as red light cameras and speed cameras?

We can just auto-submit fake videos of random cars including self-driving ones shooting each other and violating rules so there is no way to tell the fake from the authentic.

What if the self-driving cars were unmarked and had a dummy in the driver's seat to make it look like a human was in control.
Basically, couldn't there be some way to make it impossible for other drivers to know which ones were self-driving?

The Transformers comic book had mannequins behind the self-driving wheel to avoid drawing stares back in 1985.

I've thought about this too. In some places during rush hour, to merge onto a busy highway you have to take a calculated risk and put yourself at the mercy of the oncoming traffic. Will an automated car just sit there like a dumba** waiting for a mathematically sounds gap to come along?

You're merging into oncoming traffic?

That's one of the major barriers to implementing "smart" cars -- the social/legal aspect of things. I had an interesting conversation a couple of weeks ago with a guy who had run an autonomous car demo at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds (several or all the American manufacturers were there). The cars were run through some high speed courses, tires screams, within inches of the jersey walls but none got things wrong and actually skid off course. This was back in 1993 (or at least the first half of the 90s).

I mention that because it's clear the cars could be more aggressive in terms of holding their lanes and clearly will have significantly faster reaction times. Given that it may not be a good strategy for a human driver to push the merge limits with a self-driven car. It's likely to have telemetry for both itself and data regarding the surrounding environment. You'll end up in court and not have a case if an accident occurs because you cut the self driven car off. One can often get away with that with a human driver because it's almost always assumed that the car behind has the obligation to stop - even when that is impossible because someone did cut you off.

Still, it's probably going to happen and it's going to be a while before the legal dust settles -- though that will need to be addressed before there is significant adoption by the masses I would think. Probably see it more with something like taxis and buses first. At least with the buses it would be fairly easy to put some statutes in place stating the bus has a right-of-way and failure to drive accordingly would put the burden of proof on the human driven vehicle -- it's also a much more well defined path so offers a bit more predictability for all.

Oddly enough, there was a radio report on the radio here a couple of days ago about a self-driving car on the autobahn, where the radio reporter turned over control to the car - at 130kph (80mph).

The car was fine, except for the fact that its sensor range was 250 meters, whereas a normal driver can see traffic a couple of kilometers ahead - meaning that the car was nowhere near as efficient in terms of optimizing its path through traffic, as the reporter mentioned to the rep, several times. Of course, this is merely seen as a technical problem, as noted below.

A bit of background - 'Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz have made it clear that they don't want to rely on Google or other companies to develop self-driving technology or the data that's involved, and now the German government is stepping in to facilitate things with a plan to establish a section of the autobahn for autonomous vehicle testing.

Germany's Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt announced today that a portion of the A9, which connects Berlin and Munich, will be set up for autonomous vehicle testing this year. Part of that effort will include the creation of an infrastructure to support vehicle-to-vehicle communication, including freeing up part of the 700 MHz spectrum so the cars can chat with one another.' (German link - )

Duh. That's my only fear of these things. There will be world-wide traffic jams because a paper bag flew onto the road.

So basically Boston, everywhere.

Bizarro Boston: the drivers are way too nice.

And on the other end of the spectrum, there's Filipino drivers, lol. In defense of them, because traffic is so congested and speeds so slow, the death rate in the Philippines (PH) is about the same as in the USA (that is, relatively low). Much worse are the crazy Russian and Korean and Chinese drivers. Greek drivers used to be as batty as Italian drivers, but they've reformed. Peruvian drivers in those mountains are also crazy, as are Tibet (China) drivers, from personal experience. Google cars could make inroads in these places as a safer alternative to risking your life every time you take a cab in these countries. I myself drive a motorcycle in PH, which is actually safer (you can accelerate out of trouble in narrow roads).

I think you're rating foreign drivers by an unfair metric, something like "how much would I enjoy driving among them."

I think there are objective criteria by which to judge drivers, something like attentiveness to surroundings, successful intention-reading and control of their vehicle. I haven't driven is as many places as you, but for me, Naples was the place where I was most impressed. Basically, you can do anything you want if you telegraph it correctly and don't lose your nerve and act unpredictably. I think if you take a driver from Naples to another congested city, they would be terribly frustrated. I was deeply scared driving there, but came away with a deep respect for the skills of the locals. German drivers are also good, and easier for me to predict, but I think their skills are less sharp because they have it too easy. In Eastern Europe, the many people drive arrogantly, but without the skills that I saw in Italy and Germany. The only Greek place I ever had a car was on Crete, and that was a piece of cake. The custom there is to drive with two wheels on the shoulder if you're a "beta" and to pass betas at will if you're an alpha, completely ignoring lane markings and oncoming traffic.But I was told that Athenian driving is far more challenging.

After living in Boston for years I've concluded that the biggest difference between Boston and other driver is that you can not predict what the Boston driver will do.

New York drivers, for example, are much more aggressive, but I can live with that because I am sure about what they will do

I learned to drive in Germany and have driven in South America and in Asia but I still think Boston is the most difficult driving environment I've experienced.

Can a self driving car deal with that much uncertainty?

I am waiting for persons to throw inflatable human dummies in front of google vehicles to create disruption. A driver recognizes the stunt, but does an autominous driver?

I'm human an if you do that on a rainy night I won't recognize the difference. A meatb bag driver may get injured because of a "stunt".

But a human would get out of the car and move the dummy. What happens to a self-driving car, does it auto dial 911 to report an injured person?

Probably the passenger gets out and moves the dummy. Unless we're assuming that the cars are just joyriding without passengers?

This could happen, actually. The driverless car without passengers won't be out joyriding, rather it is being recalled from a different parking location outside of a high traffic area. If a person were to collapse in front of the car, it would be likely that the driverless car would simply navigate around the obstacle. I haven't heard of any good samaritan features yet.

I remember news stories of people dying because someone did stuff like that. It's not a joke to do it to either a robot or a human.

If people pull stunts like that, I will be sure to equip my self-driving car with a dash cam with enough resolution to clearly capture license plates. Cops can already use privately shot video as evidence, and maybe they will help develop some tamper-proof dashcam system that auto-uploads video into their database. Self-driving cars obviously know the traffic laws, so they can recognize when others are clearly breaking the same laws or doing something "weird", and auto-upload this to the police. This would raise the cost of human driving, which is exactly what makers of self-driving cars want. It would also generate revenue for police departments without them having to actually send cops on the roads.

Obviously we can continue to use license rotators with plates stolen from self-driving cars (which won't notice the missing plate or will be inoperable, increasing their own costs). We will upload a lot of fake video also of self-driving cars violating rules until all evidence is discredited.

How about projecting an image of a person on the road in front of the Google car. I wonder how it handles that. Sure, the radar might say there's nothing there, but what if the optics say there's a person there?

I would expect a self-driving car to still have passengers in it who would get pissed off and would be sure to report people who did that.

Yep, and let's not forget that such an act is so juvenile that one wonders just who would be doing such a thing. I'm sure some idiot or an actual juvenile does on rare occasions (I certainly have never heard any news reports about it) but not something to really think would be a big problem. At the very least is would be one of the passing social phases where, for whatever reason, the society just gets stupid for no good reason.

Won't the insurance market weigh in on these issues?

Of course, will the insurance market early on like having safer auto driving cars? The auto insurance market is a huge market and the number of agents in the marketplace would have to DROP A LOT. (As well as the great number of insurance adjusters.)

My guess the insurance companies will fight these cars until they won't. My take is the auto driving taxis come first where the companies have corporate bids for insurance and safer auto driving cars is going to dramatically lower cost.

"A Google car would never do that rude thing where a driver inches impatiently into a crosswalk while people are crossing because he/she wants to make a right turn. However, this can also lead to some annoyance to drivers behind, as the Google car seems to wait for the pedestrian to be completely clear."

Well, it may cause annoyance, but in California it happens to be the law that you must wait for the pedestrian to be completely clear of the intersection before you go. That's true even if the street is 10 lanes wide and you could easily and safely proceed long before then.

I obey that law when I drive. And yes, sometimes people get annoyed waiting behind me, but that's their problem. If and when they change the law, then I'll use my own judgment when it's safe to go.

This would seem to disagree:

"To assist with the dissemination of the CCL [California Crosswalk Law], the following information was compiled from the San Bernardino County District Attorney's office, reviewed and edited by Mark Vos, lead Deputy District Attorney, Appellate Services Unit:

. . . "motorists need not wait for pedestrians to finish crossing before they pass through a crosswalk, if drivers do so at a reasonably safe distance from the pedestrians at a reasonably safe speed."

Also goes on to cite case law establishing that both speed and distance from the pedestrian would be factors in deciding if it was safe to proceed through a crosswalk.

I always find people with attitudes such as yours curious. You hold yourself and others up when it's perfectly safe to speed things along, and apparently not out of a fear of punishment, but fealty to (what appears to be your misunderstsnding) of the law.

I've heard such people called "vigilantes." The kind of person who goes 55 in the left lane because that's what you're supposed to do.

so what are the combined second order effects on self-driving (very possible this has been covered in other posts, apologies if so)? gutting of the trucking industry and taxi industry, diminution of auto insurance industry, loss of moving violation fine revenue, probable move to shared cars in urban and suburban areas (gutting of auto industry, presumed impact on gas stations especially if shared cars go electric). what am i forgetting?

Tow truck drivers?
Emergency room docs?
Personal injury lawyers?

Trucking is first order. Trucking is where the money is. Follow the money.

Here comes a convoy of trucks from Wal-Mart/Amazon/Osama bin Laden preceded by a flock of drones.

Move over.

Second order effect is whether I move over or the trucks move over.

Who wins in this game of chicken?

Body shops.

Less need for parking..perhaps a great deal of space gained in (sub)urban areas.

Idk. What industries got gutted when we moved from horses to autos? Did we cry for them too? I think we should go back to horses, those poor poor buggy whip manufactures, buggy manufactures, horse breeders, people who scooped the feces from the streets, the growers of horse feed, the various parts of the horse supply chain. I weep for all of them. We should go back, nay, we must! Liberals unite in this cause!

Massive increase in urban car ownership.

I guess shipping by truck gets a little cheaper and taxis get way cheaper. A taxi cost per annum now has to be like 15k for the car amortization + 50k to pay the driver. So the marginal cost of taxi service drops a lot. Large trucks only make sense to amortize the driver. They serve central hubs with smaller trucks spurring off. Maybe a move to smaller/medium sized trucks. Malls go away? Drunk driving less of an issue?

In addition to eliminating the driver cost, you'll probably get a factor of two or three improvement in the average taxi's productivity:
1. The cars will be smaller, because they don't need to fit a driver.
2. The cars' values will depreciate slower, because they will be driven to optimize for maintenance cost.
3. They will be fleet vehicles instead of owner-operated, and so not capital-constrained. They will therefore have more expensive engines that depreciated slower and have better fuel economy.
4. Fewer cabs will be needed, because driverless cars don't sleep.

I doubt malls go away -- they morph into something else; which I think they already are. At least in my area the malls are as much about replicating something of a downtown setting as just a collection of stores for shopping. They are places to go socially, just like a night on the town.

I thought the internet was going to seriously impinge on the malls, but they seem to be doing just fine. They have more clothing stores and eateries, and fewer book stores now.

Despite the thrilling "technology demonstrations" of self-driving cars -- there's still a surprisingly long list of the things these cars can't do... like avoiding potholes & spontaneous road hazards, or operating in rain or snow.

An unfounded consensus has somehow emerged among tech enthusiasts and media types that such major problems have been solved ... or will be quickly solved as the scheduled testing continues its heavily publicized successes. So with the technology problems essentially "solved" -- they eagerly speculate on secondary issues like regulation and liability.

Bottom line is that general use of robotic cars is many decades away. Huge technical and operational problems remain unsolved.

"Flying Cars" for everybody have been imminent for over six decades.

If you want to come across as a semi-legitimately informed critic, it's best to refrain from ridiculous statements like the last one, or people won't take you seriously.

Yes anon, my thought exactly

No one seems to be considering the economic impact of having a lot of cars following the speed limit. That time is going to have a cost either in fewer deliveries, fewer errands, more time needed to commute, etc.

Civil Obedience of traffic laws can grind a city to a halt. Not to mention lead to rage.

I was once on I-270 coming off the DC Beltway. We were in the commuter lane and came in from the left. Ended up in the 2nd row of cars as a front formed because a police car was a couple lanes over. Not a car in sight for the mile or two ahead, with something of a surging front along the lanes controlled by the cop driving the 55. Suddenly, a woman right next to the cop on the front just bolted. I'm talking took off. This, of course, required the cop car to respond as there were two in the car so you know the passenger went, "You going to let her get away with that?" So off he goes, pulls her over about half a mile or so ahead of the still very law abiding 55 mph front. But once it passed the stop location, look out, everyone punched it.

Occasionally, they use to try to slow down traffic on the Atlanta Beltway. Troopers would set up and drive the speed limit but they caused a 10 mile traffic back up.

Here's a nice video on a Civil Obedience experiment in Atlanta

presumably that's only a transitional problem, as once all cars are self-driving the speed limit would be set to whatever the optimally efficient speed is (i would suppose it would be much higher, since you're not contending with the usual human distractions)

I doubt it, the optimal speed for humans is at least more than double the prevailing current limits. If they were all self-driving, everyone would be asleep for the entire trip anyway and wouldn't care when or if they get to their destination since there would be no point in living. The environmentalists would probably win and argue for 5mph on the grounds of saving electricity.

Actually, humans generate a lot of unnecessary congestion through the way that they drive. Speed limits actually are reduced in some cases to *reduce* traffic congestion.

+1. An interesting link on physics of traffic jams

Speed limits may be changed with these.

Shouldn't some combo of Garmin, cell, network, and Google Maps give real time (and archived) road speeds? Shouldn't this data kill unrealistically low speed limits before driverless cars?
Quota driven, chicken-sh!t tickets for going 11 over the limit (but with the flow of traffic) for having an unpopular car or skin color cannot die too soon. That, and a transition to enforcement of actual unsafe driving practices (cutting off, aggressive tailgating) would be a plus for society (but perhaps a minus for local revenuers).

Actually, humans generate a lot of unnecessary congestion through the way that they drive. Speed limits actually are reduced in some cases to *reduce* traffic congestion.

Please ignore this - My apologies for the accidental double post - it was intended as a reply to JK Brown.

And the nanny state takes more ground. People need to be taught how to drive (they aren't now although quite a few pick it up on their own - others not so much or not at all). Then a real driving test should be administered before a license is issued. Every day I encounter drivers who apparently cannot maintain a steady pace without following someone, who seem to think that encountering a hill calls for braking, etc. I understand that parallel parking is no longer part of the driving test. Failing those who should be failed is correct practice regardless of damage to the applicants self esteem.

so you're saying that to combat the nanny state, the government should tighten licensing requirements? hmm.

Agree with ibaian, I don't get the connection between your point about teaching people to drive (I agree in the USA we don't teach people how to drive) and the nanny state intro.

even if I cannot spell the name right! Sorry ibaien!

Well, it's a nice parade you've got here, but before you march too far you might want to bear in mind that Google hasn't really succeeded so far in proof of concept. These would not actually be safe without a human driver and would not work at all in unmapped areas. The reason they're so cautious at crosswalks is the same reason they've got always got a human at the wheel - they're not that good at predicting the motion of people and objects, especially from off the street into. This writer sees so many because they go round and round one little area.

The article linked is plagiarized from

I couldn't find it for the life of me, but IIRC there was an article 10ish years ago that said the google autonomous car was astoundingly quick to start. Likely optimizing for fuel and time efficiency has been traded for PR and liability risk since then.

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