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It takes four weeks to learn how not to drive one of Google’s self-driving cars

Big Red Button

Medium’s tech hub editor-in-chief Steven Levy provides an interesting behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to be a test-(non)driver of one of Google’s self-driving cars. Among the more surprising facts is that there’s a four-week full-time course to qualify to sit behind the wheel of one of the company’s testbed Lexus cars – with additional training needed for the cute prototype cars with only emergency controls.

There’s an abbreviated version for those who will only be sitting in the cars on the company’s private test facility. If you fancy the job, the most reliable way to apply, says Levy, is to be friends with an existing driver. If you can’t swing that, there’s always the option of applying to be a professional pedestrian …

Levy says that Google recognized that it needed non-engineers behind the wheel in order to notch up the sheer number of miles required. Initial applicants weren’t told what the job was for until they were hired.

Brian Torcellini, then a recent urban studies major at San Diego State [said] his interviewers were vague about what the job entailed. “Basically they were like, ‘Do you like cars? Do you like technology? Do you want to drive pretty much all day, everyday?’” he says. “I said sure, I’m happy to sign up. They led me to believe that I might be working with the Street View team, but I walk in and see self-driving cars being built. And I’m like, okay, this is awesome.”

The main requirement, says Torcellini, is to be “a kick-ass driver.”

That doesn’t mean you can take a hairpin turn at 50 miles per hour and drift the car around cones and stuff like that. It’s really paying attention to everything and predicting how the social aspect of driving works.

To provide the cars with as many real-life challenges as possible, Google’s 100-acre test circuit is equipped with a “toy chest” of props.

Bicycles are only one kind of prop used in testing, many of which are stored in a big shed to the side of the trailer and a wide garage that holds a small fleet of Google’s prototype custom-built self-driving vehicles. Villegas calls the shed “my toy chest.” There are traffic cones, road signs depicting various hazards, mailboxes, faux plants, roller skates, umbrellas, walkers, and — this is unsettling — fully dressed, child-size dummies.

Then there are the human props.

Sometimes Google uses human props, known as “professional pedestrians.” I had the chance to chat with one, Cassandra Hernandez [Sometimes] she assures me, the action is jalapeño-level. Does she ever get nervous participating in scenarios where she might be plowed under by a berserk robot Lexus SUV — or, in a more humiliating nightmare, a Herbie-esque prototype? Not really. “We just have to learn to trust,” she says.

Drivers are trained to disengage autonomous driving when they see any issue.

There’s a code for every kind of disengagement. For instance #FOD means “foreign object or debris.” “In those cases, the driver has to disengage and go around,” says Hanbusa. “We don’t want to run over any branch or piece of wood.”

They also need to disengage if other road-users get too curious.

Google also instructs its drivers to disengage when they encounter reckless drivers or tailgaters. These can be common, because sometimes human drivers get overly curious when sharing a road with a car driving itself.

The co-driver, meantime, has the task of comparing the wireframe view on the laptop – depicting the car’s ‘understanding’ of the road – to what is actually out there. If they spot any discrepancy between the two, such as an object the car has failed to spot, they disengage. Every disengagement needs to be logged and later analyzed.

Levy himself had to disengage once: when traffic cones representing a construction area caused the car to be so timid it almost came to a halt.

While Google’s self-driving cars have never caused an accident, we recently learned that this does present a somewhat misleading picture of their abilities: they would have caused ten accidents last year had the drivers not taken control (even if two of them would only have been collisions with traffic cones).

Google also stresses that nobody has ever had to press the big red stop button – but that’s because test drivers have to be ready to take the controls instantly. The moment they steer, brake or accelerate, the car automatically switches to manual control.

The entire piece is well worth a read.

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