Google and Tesla agree autonomous vehicles will make streets safer, and both are racing toward a driverless future. But when Google tested its self-driving car prototype on employees a few years ago, it noticed something that would take it down a different path from Tesla.
Once behind the wheel of the modified Lexus SUVs, the drivers quickly started rummaging through their bags, fiddling with their phones and taking their hands off the wheel — all while traveling on a freeway at 60 mph.
"Within about five minutes, everybody thought the car worked well, and after that, they just trusted it to work," Chris Urmson, the head of Google's self-driving car program, said on a panel this year. "It got to the point where people were doing ridiculous things in the car."
After seeing how people misused its technology despite warnings to pay attention to the road, Google has opted to tinker with its algorithms until they are human-proof. The Mountain View, Calif., firm is focusing on fully autonomous vehicles — cars that drive on their own without any human intervention and, for now, operate only under the oversight of Google experts.
Tesla, on the other hand, released a self-driving feature called autopilot to customers in a software update last year. The electric carmaker, led by tech billionaire Elon Musk, says those who choose to participate in the "public beta phase" will help refine the technology and make streets safer sooner.
Tesla drivers already had logged some 130 million miles using the feature before a fatal crash in Florida in May made it the subject of a preliminary federal inquiry made public on Thursday.
The divergent approaches reflect companies with different goals and business strategies. Tesla's rapid-fire approach is in line with its image as a small but significant auto industry disruptor, while Google — a tech company from whom no one expects auto products — has the luxury of time.
With the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration yet to release guidelines for self-driving technology, existing regulation has little influence on corporate tactics.
That makes Google's caution even more surprising, as it has long operated with the Silicon Valley ethos of launching products fast and experimenting even faster. But in developing self-driving cars, the company has splintered from its software roots. It is taking its time to perfect a revolutionary technology that will turn Google into a company that helps people get around the real world the way it helps them navigate the Internet.
"I've had people say, 'Look, my Windows laptop crashes every day — what if that's my car?' " Urmson said at a conference held by The Times on transportation issues. "How do you make sure you don't have a 'blue screen of death,' so to speak?"
The stakes are simply higher with self-driving cars than with operating systems and apps, Urmson said. That's why Google has yet to bring its self-driving technology to consumer vehicles even though it's been in development for seven years and logged more than 1.5 million test miles.
Tesla insists its vehicles go through vigorous in-house testing and are proved safe before they reach consumers. And, according to the company, putting them on the roads makes the software — which learns from experience — only better.
"We are continuously and proactively enhancing our vehicles with the latest advanced safety technology," a Tesla spokeswoman said via email.
And there's truth to that, said Jeff Miller, IEEE member and an associate professor in the Computer Engineering Department at USC, who said there is no way to stamp out every problem from technology before launching it. At some point, this kind of technology needs to be thrown into the real world.
"Every single program in the world has bugs in it," he said. "You have imperfect human beings who have written the code, and imperfect human beings driving around the driverless cars. Accidents are going to happen."
But this doesn't mean these products shouldn't launch.
"We have been testing the vehicles in labs for a good number of years now," Miller said. "Like with airplanes, eventually you're going to have that first flight with passengers on it."
Getting the technology to work is only half the challenge, though. As Google learned when its employees took their hands off the wheel, the other half is ensuring that the technology is immune to human error.
It's not enough for the technology in a vehicle to simply work as intended, said David Strickland, a former chief of the NHTSA who now leads the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a group that includes Google, Volvo, Ford, Uber and Lyft. Part of the safety evaluation has to account for how the technology could be misused, and companies must build protections against that.
Tesla and other automakers have launched automated cruise control features with built-in sound alerts if a driver's hands are not detected on the wheel. But these checks aren't fool-proof, either.
"Having developed software and hardware products … I can point to the incredible inventiveness of customers in doing things you just never, ever considered possible, even when you tried to take the ridiculous and stupid into account," said Paul Reynolds, a former vice president of engineering at wireless charging technology developer Ubeam. "If customer education is the only thing stopping your product from being dangerous in normal use, then your real problem is a company without proper consideration for safety."
Google and other automakers aim to solve the human problem by achieving the highest level of autonomy possible. The NHTSA ranks self-driving cars based on the level they cede to the vehicle, with 1 being the lowest and 5 the highest.
Tesla's autopilot feature is classified as level 2, which means it is capable of staying in the center of a lane, changing lanes and adjusting speed according to traffic. Google is aiming for levels 4 and 5 — the former requires a driver to input navigation instructions, but relinquishes all other control to the vehicle, while level 5 autonomy does not involve a driver at all.
Volvo plans to launch a pilot program for its level 4 autonomous car next year. BMW has signaled ambitions to develop levels 3, 4 and 5 autonomous vehicles.
The problem with level 2, critics say, is that it's just autonomous enough to give drivers the false sense that the vehicle can drive itself, which can lead to careless behavior.
Tesla disputes this — its owner's manual details the feature's limitations — and it says drivers are actually clamoring for the product. Tesla executive Jonathan McNeil said in a February investor call that the autopilot feature is "one of the core stories of what's going on here at Tesla."
The sudden rollout of the tool in October is in line with a company that has made a name for itself as a boundary-pusher that appeals to those willing to take a risk on technology with world-changing potential.
Its regular software updates bring flashy, first-of-their-kind functions to cars already on the road — a way to build loyalty among current owners and court new ones. Indeed, 40-year-old Joshua Brown, who died when his Tesla Model S failed to detect a white big rig against the bright sky, posted two dozen videos showing the autopilot technology in action.
Analysts aren't surprised that Tesla is moving faster than Alphabet Inc. — Google's parent company and the second most-valuable publicly traded company on American markets. Cars, after all, are Tesla's business.
Google makes money from its search and advertising business and has its hands in hardware, software, email and entertainment. Self-driving vehicles are one of its "moonshots" — ambitious projects with no expectation for short-term profitability. They are lumped into Google X, a secretive arm of the company that has experimented with ideas such as using balloons to connect the world to Wi-Fi and the head-mounted gadget Google Glass.
The company has no plans to manufacture and sell its own vehicles. Instead, it likely will partner with automakers, hoping its autonomous-driving software will come to dominate the market the same way its Android operating system dominates the smartphone industry.
"Google has the time, and they can develop things quietly," said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with Auto Trader, "whereas Tesla is under some pressure to build this car company and start making a profit."
As self-driving technology becomes commonplace, regulators, automakers and consumers will have to decide whether rolling out early products is worth the potential risk, said Shannon Vallor, a philosophy professor at Santa Clara University who studies the intersection of ethics and technology.
"It is far from obvious that the ends here do justify the beta testing of this technology on public roads without better safeguards," Vallor said.
Times staff writer Paresh Dave contributed to this report.