Google teaching self-driving cars to drive like humans

Technically Incorrect: The company recognizes that its self-driving cars drive like robots, which isn't optimal behavior on roads populated by humans.

Chris Matyszczyk
2 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Trying to be more like irrational people? Google

Teaching a car to drive on its own is one thing. Getting a car to drive like an imperfect, stressed, neurotic, psychotic, road-raging human is another thing all together.

That's what Google is reportedly coming to terms with as it develops its self-driving cars. The Wall Street Journal describes the baby steps the company's engineers are taking in order to get its self-driving cars to behave "humanistically," as Chris Urmson, who leads Google's self-driving project dispassionately terms it.

The experience with self-driving cars on the road has been that they're getting into accidents. It's never, no never the Google car's fault. It's just that those pesky humans aren't predictable. They break traffic laws, too.

Shame on them.

One of Google's problems, however, is that its cars are even more neurotic than humans. They brake at the slightest possibility of trouble. Or what a computer might think is trouble.

In essence, they maneuver like a first-time visitor to a distant country. With jet lag.

There are so many permutations in possible human behavior that even if the computer can register them all, there's little hope that it will still react in real time to what is actually happening, rather than what it fears might happen. At least not yet.

Many of the accidents involving self-driving cars -- none was serious -- involve Google's car being rear-ended.

Google engineer told Nathaniel Fairfield told the Journal: "We clearly are a little jerkier than we would like. But all of these cases have been when we are sitting still."

One example of humanistic behavior is that we don't take turns in a perfect arc. We cut corners when we can. Google has had to teach its cars to do the same.

But which rules of the road is Google prepared to break and which ones will be all too much for its righteous soul? It will now cross double-yellow lines to avoid a car that's, say, double-parked and blocking its path.

But will a Google car roll over the corner of the curb just to get beyond some aberrant human in a car? Will it slip into the middle lane and go beyond the speed limit when it's faced with someone dawdling in the outside lane?

The company wasn't immediately available for comment.

There is something quite beautiful about Google's engineers realizing what instinctive problem-solvers we humans are, as well as how we improvise our way through the world.

Of course, the easiest thing would be to ban humans from driving overnight. Then we'd all have to drift down freeways, hugging the speed limit like survivors clinging to a life-raft.

Until then, Google must make its machines more like humans. How touching it would be if their engineers discovered the world works better when it functions along irrational lines.