A fleet of Google's robot cars ferried more than two dozen reporters around Mountain View, California, on Tuesday, in 30-minute ride-alongs that showcased their ability to automatically and safely navigate around city streets packed with cyclists, pedestrians and traffic signs.
The demonstrations, along with a morning of press briefings by Google managers developing the technology, marked the company's most concerted effort to date to provide an up-close look at the cars conceived five years ago in its secretive Google X division.
The public needs to understand that a self-driving car is "not something that you need to fear but something you need to embrace," said Ron Medford, a former National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration official who is now director of safety for Google's self-driving car project.
"We do find that when people experience it, we get remarkable results and responses," Medford said at the event at the Computer History Museum, during which Google explained the technology that makes the cars work.
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin tout the driverless car as revolutionary technology that could eventually sharply reduce fatalities on the road. But it remains to be seen whether it's ready for widespread use.
Lately, some of Google's ambitious "moonshot" projects have stirred unease. Google Glass, a postage stamp-sized computer screen that attaches to eyeglass frames and is capable of recording video, has raised privacy concerns.
For self-driving cars, consumer acceptance and regulation may be as much issues as perfecting the technology.
Google will not say whether it will build its own cars or license the technology to automakers, nor will it provide a firm date for when the cars will be available. Co-founder Brin has said the technology could be available by 2017.
It would be hard to mistake the gold Lexus RX 450h cars that Google has converted into self-driving prototypes for normal cars, primarily because of the roof-mounted laser sensor that revolves 10 times a second, gathering a 360-degree view of the car's surroundings.
Other drivers who spot the self-driving car often swerve in front of it and tap on their brakes, hoping to gauge the Google car's reaction, according to the two Google staffers in the car's front seats. Another favorite involves car drivers waving their hands in the air, in an attempt to get the Google driver-seat staff member to take his or her own hands off the wheel and prove the car is really steering itself.
"We just laugh at them," said one of the Google staff members in the car.
From the car's backseat, the ride feels little different from sitting in a taxi. The car's speed, the distance it maintains from the vehicle in front and its handling, for the most part, feel completely ordinary.
Changing lanes occasionally feels sharper than typical, and the car slowed down at a green light at one point until its sensors were able to "read" a traffic light that was apparently mounted at an odd angle.
The Google staff member in the driver's seat never took control of the car, other than the initial passage through a speed bump-laden parking lot, and once again on arrival.
Google's cars have never "caused" an accident in self-driving mode, although they have been involved in a few fender benders, such as an incident in which a Google car stopped at a red light got rear-ended, said Chris Urmson, the head of Google's self-driving car project.
Unlike human drivers, self-driving cars never get drowsy behind the wheel, and they can react to unforeseen situations much more quickly, he said.
© Thomson Reuters 2014