A drive in the Google car

For the first time, some unsuspecting people have had a ride in Google’s new driverless car. They liked it.

The New York Times’ John Markoff called the car “boring” earlier this month. But this week he found out Google has given up on the idea of using regular cars for its project and is, instead, designing an entirely new vehicle.

The passenger compartment has room for just two seats, lots of legroom and, in place of the normal automobile dashboard, a small storage area for things like groceries.

Below the plastic windshield — the idea is that such a material would cushion the blow should something go wrong and the car hits a pedestrian — is a horizontal flat-panel display. During our ride it showed the time, the local temperature and a projection on the time remaining until we were scheduled to end our trip, but you could easily see how it might also allow you to do Google searches or read Gmail on your ride.

Although both Sergey Brin, a Google co-founder involved in the project, and Dr. Urmson were coy about what the search engine company wants to do with its self-driving cars, I think the answer is now clear. And it is stunning.

The driverless car could also usher in the end of vehicle ownership. The project boss thinks the car will be part of services to provide transportation. We won’t need our cars anymore, he theorizes.

It’s about five years away from production, Wired reports. There are still lots of things it can’t do.

Take you to the mountains: Bad weather doesn’t just make traction control tricky, it change how the car sees the world around. Snow on the ground and water kicked up by other cars messes with the spinning laser that sits on the roof, while fog limits how far the radar can see. Fortunately, Google is doing the bulk of its testing the Bay Area, where it will get a lot of practice with fog. Ten bucks says engineers are lobbying for a trip to Tahoe–you know, for snow testing.

Go off the grid: Like a millennial, the car gets upset when it can’t get a cell signal, which give it access to Google’s bank of detailed maps and let it send new information back home. No worries if the connection is a bit slow, but if it drops out, the car will “do something safe,” Chris Urmson, the project director, said. He didn’t elaborate, so we’ll assume the car asks the human to take over, then focuses on other mission-critical tasks like finding a good radio station.

Understand traffic cops: The car will detect that “there’s a person standing in the middle of the road waving their hands in a funny way,” Software Lead Dmitri Dolgov said, but it won’t be able to decipher different hand motions. Rather, it will understand that something unusual is happening, and act conservatively, or ask the human at the wheel to take over.

Avoid creaming squirrels: While the car picks up pedestrians who may jaywalk and deer that could bolt across the road, squirrels are still too small for its sensors. The team is constantly working to pick up more and more detail, but hasn’t “done a squirrel test,” Urmson said.

Re/Code calls the car “the lovechild of a gondola and golf cart.”