When this idea for self-driving vehicles was first being tested on public roads by Google in May of 2014, the vehicle we now see was still being developed. The technology that is currently the basis of it wasn’t, and was already being retrofitted to regular vehicles like Lexus SUVs and Toyota Priuses. The Google developers would, for example, pick one of those cars to attach the spinning satellite to, then mount it on top of the automobile. After the necessary connections were made, the car would realize where it was, people and/or objects around it, and know how to safely react to its environment. The car could perform like this whether it was on the open highway or in stop-and-go city traffic.
Priscilla Knox, one of the original safety testers for Google’s self-driving cars, was one of the engineers last year that helped work out the initial kinks in the overall project. In one video, she rides around in a Lexus that’s equipped with the new technology on real public roads as she is “teaching” the vehicle how to react to its environment. “My role as a safety driver is to first and foremost keep the car, myself and everyone around me safe,” she said. “In addition to keeping me and the car safe, I also provide detailed feedback to developers and let them know if the car does anything that maybe I wouldn’t do personally. Maybe the car wasn’t assertive enough at a lane change, or fast enough at a green light. We provide the detailed feedback so they can fine tune the whole driving experience.”
That was over a year ago. Now, after all of the road tests (on two already well-loved consumer vehicles), a fully-functioning prototype with that exact ingrained technology has been developed. The first model that was being created back when Priscilla and other testers and engineers were working on it didn’t even have real headlights! But now, Google has been putting the small vehicle that has no steering wheel, accelerator, or brake pedal on the road in real-life driving situations in since early last year, and will likely continue to do so in 2016 as well.