Payne: Driving in the Google Marshmallow Bumper Bot

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Mountain View, California — Driving in the autonomous Google electric car is a very different experience than its predecessor, the Lexus RX350 Hybrid equipped with Google self-driving equipment that I tested here over a year ago.

For one thing, there’s what to call it.

Google has yet name it so the public has been filling the void. It’s been variously referred to as a “marshmallow,” “nerf car,” and “koala ball.” My favorite? The “Skynet Marshmallow Bumper Bot” (courtesy of The Oatmeal.com).

But the other difference is the car doesn’t feel like a car at all. It feels more like a Disneyland ride. The interior is devoid of traditional car tools. No pedals. No instrument panel. No steering wheel. The absence of the latter is transforming, actually. Rather than making me feel less safe, it is comforting not to see the pilot-less steering wheel spinning around like car is possessed. My wife won’t get in a self-parking, steering wheel-spinning Ford Focus, much less a possessed, self-driving Google Lexus.

I felt like I was in a Disney monorail, or the front of a New York subway rail-car. But without the rails.

Government regulations still demand that autonomous vehicles have a safety engineer sitting by in the driver’s seat if they are let loose on public roads. Which is why I was driving in the Google Lexus on public roads last year — and on the parking-lot roof of Google’s X-lab in the Marshmallow Bumper Bot. But Google did everything to make the roof seems like a public road.

They threw pedestrians across our path. Bicyclists. A merging Ford Fusion. Not to mention the fixed rooms, light poles, and walls that make the X-lab roof look like a maze. The Google car navigated them all — braking, stopping, steering. By my second ride, I was comfortably glancing at my phone and checking email.

There’s another big difference with the Lexus. The Marshmallow Bot is Made in Detroit.

Google has partnered with Roush which manufactured my tester in Livonia. There the car is hand-built with the same roof-mounted “LIDAR” dome (a package of lasers, radars, and cameras), sensors, and software as the Google Lexus — but packaged about the size and shape of a VW Beetle. Then it’s shipped to Mountain View for final software updating by Google engineers.

The engineers say the Google car looks so cute because it was designed from the ground up with round corners so the LIDAR can see 360 degrees around the car. “We wanted to re-imagine the car without the steering wheel,” says Lead Systems Engineer Jaime Waydo. “When we do that we want to build a car that can see 360 degrees.”

But Google also admits its cuteness has the effect of helping the self-driving car gain public acceptance. It’s reassuring that the autonomous car heading down the street looks like a friendly kid’s play toy and not Darth Vader (like, ahem, the new Lexus RX’s grille). Significantly, the LIDAR dome — which looks like a spinning bubble gum machine with legs on top of the Google Lexus — has been greatly modified to resemble the blue dome on Andy Griffith’s Mayberry police car. Indeed, from a distance, the Google car can look like a VW meter maid.

This attention to detail means Google car is serious about coming to the market. Soon.

While Google founder Sergey Brin won’t put a date to the Google car’s ambitions, he says Google is working closely with regulators. The Marshmallow Bot is also a regular fixture on public roads — approved for testing by the government of Mountain View and Austin, Texas.

Google is testing the cars furiously, having already logged 1.2 million miles. Safety is a first priority, and the Google car has been limited to 25 mph on local streets. The few accidents it has been involved in have been almost entirely caused by human drivers running into it.

“We were surprised by the frequency of times we’ve been rear-ended,” says Brin. It’s much higher than we first thought. Human drivers are not paying attention. It speaks to the challenge of people driving with cell phones and other distractions. And that’s the safety issue that a self-driving car solves.”

Brin says the Google car will make driving safer, but will never replace the fun of driving. “There is a future for both worlds,” he says. “There’ll always be the pleasure of the open road.” But for the daily drudgery of metro commuting — Brin says the average work commute is 50 minutes — the Google car’s technology will be a revolution.

Driving in the Google car, its immediate future is evident: It will be a boon to taxi services like Uber and commercial fleets like airport shuttles. My tester was roomy with heated seats, a tasteful stitched vinyl interior, and luggage room where the dashboard and console used to be.

“Driverless vehicles will change the game,” says Rattan Joea, CEO of California-based, airport-focused Prime Time Shuttle, who sees a future of Uber-like ride shares. “It will streamline our service by taking the operator out of the equation. It will save on insurance by removing human limitations. Computers don’t get tired. They don’t get sleepy.”

Such commercial services might initially be able to afford the huge up-front costs of the Google technology given its long-term labor savings. But ultimately, Goggle’s Brin sees the rolling marshmallow — or whatever its name will be — as affordable transportation so that the elderly (like his Parkinson’s afflicted mom) can get around even after they are no longer fit to drive.