Would you like to be a driverless car driver? Brian Torcellini, Google team leader of driving operations, right, poses for photos with vehicle safety specialists Rob Miller, top left, and Ryan Espinosa, next to a vehicle at a Google office in Mountain View, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Would you like to be a driverless car driver?
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After a friend recommended that he join a secret Google project six years ago, Brian Torcellini suddenly found himself on the road to an occupational oxymoron. He became a driver in a driverless car.
 
Torcellini, 31, leads a crew of test, or "safety," drivers. They are legally required to ride in Google's fleet of 48 robot cars. They only take control in emergencies. Otherwise, they make observations that help the Internet company's engineers program the cars to navigate the roads without human assistance.
 
"A lot of people go to work and sit in a cubicle," Torcellini says. "Our cube just happens to move around the roads. And if we are successful, we are going to put ourselves out of a job."
 
The driverless cars already have logged more than 2 million miles in six years of sometimes tedious testing on private tracks, highways and city streets. Those are located mostly near Google's Mountain View, California, headquarters.
 
The vehicles have traveled more than half that distance in automated mode. That is with one test driver in place to take control of the car if the technology fails or a potentially dangerous situation arises. Meanwhile, another driver sits in the front passenger seat. That person keeps notes about problems that need to be fixed and traffic scenarios that need to be studied.
 
"I don't want to compare myself to an astronaut. But it kind of feels like that sometimes," says Google test driver Ryan Espinosa. He spoke while riding in an automated Lexus that took an Associated Press reporter on a 20-minute ride around town without requiring any human intervention.
 
If the technology advances as Google envisions, the only people sitting in driverless cars by 2020 will be passengers looking for an easier way to get around.
 
Even fewer test drivers will be working. That is because the driverless cars will be completely autonomous. There will be no need for the vehicles to be equipped with steering wheels or brake pedals. Everything will be controlled through a combination of sensors, lasers, software and intricate maps. It is a vision that could very well leave many of Google's test drivers looking for a new line of work.
 
The job requires a sense of adventure. It's something Torcellini acquired when he began to surf in high school. His other passions include spear fishing and scuba diving. He likens scuba diving to the sensation he gets when he climbs into one of Google's self-driving cars and pushes the button that activates the vehicle's robotic controls.
 
"When you go scuba diving and take a moment to really think about it, you realize you are doing something that isn't supposed to be humanly possible. You are breathing underwater," Torcellini says. "It's the same kind of feeling you get in one of these cars. It's not supposed to be humanly possible."
 
While the engineers who are programming the robot cars have technical backgrounds, most of the test drivers don't.
 
Torcellini worked in a drug store warehouse while getting his degree in political science at San Diego State University. He dreamed of pursuing a career writing about surfing. He ended up at Google in 2009. A friend who worked for the company suggested he interview for an opening on a then-secret project.
 
Espinosa, 27, was working in a bicycle shop before he was hired as a test driver. That was two-and-half years ago. Stephanie Villegas, 28, was a swim instructor, knife sharpener and bond trader before becoming a test driver. Other test drivers are military veterans and former photographers. They all share at least one thing in common. They have spotless driving records.
 
Before they are entrusted with the cars, Google's test drivers must complete three-week training courses. The drivers are taught to take control of the robot car whenever there is any moment of doubt or danger.
 
Google employs "dozens" of test drivers. The company won't reveal the precise number. It's likely around 100 because California law requires two test drivers per vehicle. Google's fleet currently consists of 25 pod-like cars and 23 Lexuses.
 
A few of those self-driving cars Google also recently began cruising around Austin, Texas.  A few of the test drivers are based there.
 
The crew consists of a mix of full-time employees and contractors, some of who are eventually hired by the company.
 
The drivers who start off as contractors begin at $20 per hour with "many opportunities" for overtime when they log more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week. This is according to Google's recent help-wanted listings posted on Glassdoor.com. The drivers who become employees receive company stock options in addition to their salaries, though Google won't disclose how much they are paid.
 
Besides having clean driving records, Google's test drivers say the job requires a combination of good judgment, patience and fearlessness. The self-driving cars were in 16 accidents from May 2010 through August. But they are becoming more frequent as the vehicles spend more time on public roads. Half of the collisions have happened since February. The self-driving cars were traveling an average of about 10,000 miles per week on public streets in autonomous mode. There have been no major injuries reported so far.
 
The self-driving technology hasn't been to blame for any of the accidents, according to Google. The company says one collision was caused by an employee who was steering a robot car while running a personal errand. In all but three of the accidents, Google's self-driving cars have been rear-ended. It's a trend that the company believes has to do with the large number of motorists who are texting, talking on the phone or otherwise doing something besides paying attention to the roads and their surroundings.
 
"There are tons of situations where we see people who just aren't very good at driving out there," Torcellini says. "It's up to us to teach the (robot) cars to be better than those drivers, and even better than the best drivers, too."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why do driverless cars need a driver?
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COMMENTS (43)
  • reidi-4-bar
    10/06/2015 - 08:20 p.m.

    Google is making a driverless car. So far google has made 48 robot cars. Robot cars will have little to no accidents because robots hardly ever make mistake. I think that this will be very cool when people do not have to concentrate on the road as much and just get to sit and relax behind the robot. It will also be cool then there will be little to no accidents at all.

  • billiem-1-bar
    10/06/2015 - 08:22 p.m.

    A driverless car would need a driver in case something goes wrong and the driver needs to take over the cars control.
    I found this article interesting because they are coming so close to releasing the first driverless car.

  • seans-2-bar
    10/06/2015 - 09:36 p.m.

    Driverless cars need a driver because if some component shuts down and needs assistance the driver can fix the problem.I recently heard a lecture at UCIabout automated driving so I am particularly interested in this subject.

  • berniev-agn
    10/07/2015 - 12:07 p.m.

    Driverless cars need a driver because of safety and learning reasons. If the car were to be in danger or in harms way for any reason, the driver could take control and try to stop an accident from happening. Many times accidents are unavoidable and cars are rear-ended. The Apple company says this is from careless drivers. That is another reason that the drivers are in the car, to help learn how to improve on what to do to make the car safer, smarter, and ready anything. There are two drivers in the vehicle. One for safety reasons, and the other person for learning about what to improve on the car. For instance, if a the car needs help navigating, sensing certain objects, that person can right notes down to the manufacturers. I believe this system is very safe and well thought out. In a few years driverless cars may be everywhere thanks to these people. I for one would have no problem being in one of these vehicles, knowing that it was tested for this long and this carefully.

  • Steve0620-yyca
    10/07/2015 - 09:44 p.m.

    I think that it is cool how Google is designing a new self driving car. I think that if this is successful then it will help many people who are too tired or weak to drive. I think that people will have more time to relax because they are not going to be the ones driving the car anymore. I think that many new ideas and inventions are popping out. I hope that this would be successful and announced to the public.

  • Brandon1231-YYCA
    10/07/2015 - 09:59 p.m.

    I think that having the self driving car is a bit cool because my mother would be happy to get something like this. My mother wouldn't have to drive and she can just sleep and just relax until the ride is over. I hope that they can release the new cars fast so that the people that need cars like this can get one and be happy. I want to get my mother one of these cars and I hope that I can be able to afford one.

  • ziont-orv-orv
    10/08/2015 - 01:21 p.m.

    Driver-less cars need a driver because of safety and learning reasons. If the car were to be in danger or in harms way for any reason, the driver could take control and try to stop an accident from happening. Many times accidents are unavoidable and cars are rear-ended. The Apple company says this is from careless drivers. That is another reason that the drivers are in the car, to help learn how to improve on what to do to make the car safer, smarter, and ready anything. There are two drivers in the vehicle. One for safety reasons, and the other person for learning about what to improve on the car. For instance, if a the car needs help navigating, sensing certain objects, that person can right notes down to the manufacturers. I believe this system is very safe and well thought out. In a few years driver-less cars may be everywhere thanks to these people. I for one would have no problem being in one of these vehicles, knowing that it was tested for this long and this carefully.

  • aaront-ric
    10/08/2015 - 05:13 p.m.

    They seem like they would need a driver for safety. Say the car has a problem the driver could still try to stop it in time. Yes i think it would be cool to drive a car like that.

  • holdeno-3-bar
    10/09/2015 - 08:34 p.m.

    Driverless cars need a driver because drivers can see things that the car can't. When a self-driving car is on the road, it still faces many dangers. If the car overlooks a danger, then the human can correct it. This helps the car be safer and prevent accidents. Without a driver, an autonomous car could crash, and nothing would prevent that from happening.
    I like this article because it deals with a fun subject, technology.

  • josepht-2-bar
    10/09/2015 - 10:55 p.m.

    Driverless cars need a driver because incase of an emergence they would need to drive manually drive the car out of danger. I think it is interesting because now we don't need to drive and you can be doing something else.

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