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Letting Go Of The Wheel: How Google Is Easing People Into Self-Driving Cars


Google's self-driving cars have driven more than a million miles, but the company still faces a big problem. Human beings love being in control. So how does Google convince drivers to sit back, relax and let a robot take the wheel? Steve Henn from our Planet Money podcast reports.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Allysa Bowman works at Google. Her job is to drive - or rather, not drive these self-driving cars.

ALLYSA BOWMAN: I have been not driving for almost three years now.

HENN: Do you remember the first time you didn't drive?

BOWMAN: Oh, man. I remember being a little nervous to, like, first hit the button to have the car go and let it take over.

HENN: I know the feeling.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: Preplanned route.

HENN: Preplanned route, OK.

We were driving through this construction site, and we were going past a guy holding one of those slow signs, the kind that has a stop sign on the other side on the back. And right as we went by, the guy flipped the sign around to say stop.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: Temporary stop sign.

HENN: The Google car slammed on its brakes all by itself.


BOWMAN: So that was quite interesting.

HENN: The car actually startled us it stopped so quickly. None of us had seen that stop sign flip around when it had happened.

I think I've blown through manual stop signs like that a thousand times

This car sees more than we do. It doesn't get distracted. And even though this is kind of a low bar, I'm convinced that already the Google self-driving car is a better driver than I am. But Google's engineers can't just take everyone in the world out for a drive. They have to use design to convince the skeptics.

Now, in the first version of the car, Google decided the best thing to do would be to leave the steering will in. It would make people more comfortable knowing they could grab control at any moment if they needed to. But then designers thought about this. Do you really want someone who's watching a YouTube video or taking a nap waking up, getting spooked and grabbing the wheel? For Chris Urmson, who leads the self-driving car project at Google, the answer was obvious.

CHRIS URMSON: Why put the steering wheel in the car if you're not supposed to use it? You know, you get to remove a part of the system that you can't design.

HENN: So Chris is designing a car that works more like an elevator. And, you know, he's not and idiot. He knows that the idea of a car without a steering wheel is going to freak people out. So like the elevator, Google is using design to make the car as non-threatening as they can.

All right, it's a tiny, little car. You know, from the outside, its looks like someone stuck a bug in a shrinky dink.

URMSON: I've never heard of it described like that before. But, you know, inside it feels pretty spacious.

HENN: And it was adorable. It's all round and soft. It has this tiny, little black radar mounted on the hood that looks like a button nose, and everything is designed to keep you calm. There are rearview mirrors, although I'm not sure exactly what they're for. And inside, there's a screen that shows you what the car can see. And there's a reassuring automated voice.


HENN: Sixty years ago, elevator designers used many of the same tricks. Lee Grey wrote the definitive history of the passenger elevator. He says the automated voice is a classic.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #3: This is an automatic elevator - doors closing.

HENN: Grey says calming people down, helping them relax - this is why elevator music exists. Now, fortunately, in Google's car, you can pick your own playlist. And when you're inside, you're not totally helpless. You can use a phone to tell the car where to go, and there are a few buttons. There are two for the windows. There's one to pull over. And then, between the two seats, there it is, under a Plexiglas shield, the classic illusion of control - a big red button that says stop.

URMSON: Just like an elevator. I've never pressed the red button in an elevator, but it's kind of comforting to know it's there.

HENN: In Chris's ideal world, that is all anyone will ever need. But Google's prototype still makes some people nervous, specifically California regulators and politicians. So in order to test this little car on the roads and highways around Silicon Valley, Google has had to add back in a temporary steering wheel and a break. Steve Henn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.
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