Let the Robot Drive: The Autonomous Car of the Future Is Here

The object, vaguely pink, sits on the shoulder of the freeway, slowly shimmering into view. Is it roadkill? A weird kind of sagebrush? No, wait, it’s … a puffy chunk of foam insulation! “The laser almost certainly got returns off of it,” says Chris Urmson, sitting behind the wheel of the Prius he is not driving. A note is made (FOD: foreign object or debris, lane 1) as we drive past, to help our computerized car understand the curious flotsam it has just seen.

It’s a Monday, midday, and we are heading north on California Highway 85 in a Google autonomous vehicle. In October 2010, when The New York Times reported that Google had built a fleet of self-driving cars that had already collectively traversed some 140,000 miles of California asphalt, it came as a shock, a terrestrial Sputnik. Now the cars, with their whirling rooftop laser arrays, are as familiar in the Bay Area as the company’s camera-crowned Street View vehicles. Indeed, the two are often confused, which is presumably why the words “self-driving car” have recently been plastered on this one’s driver-side door...

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