What Happens When a Driverless Car Encounters Construction

The human driver takes over, at least for now.
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Google

It's clear, now, that Google's driverless cars are a real thing.

Using a combination of extremely detailed maps, a quiver full of sensors, and sophisticated machine learning techniques for seeing the road, a computer-driven car can navigate most driving situations with ease. 

But what about the unexpected? It's the first objection to driverless vehicles that most people come up with. 

The Atlantic Cities got to go on a ride-along in a driverless car through the city (well, town) streets of Mountain View.

As they were bopping along under autonomous control, the car encountered some unanticipated roadwork. Here's what happened: 

We are in the left lane on Mountain View's West Middlefield Road when some road work appears up ahead. A dozen or so orange cones guide traffic to the right. The self-driving car slows down and announces the obstruction — "lane blocked" — but seems confused what to do next. It won't merge right, even though no cars are coming up behind us. After a few false starts, Brian Torcellini takes the wheel and steers around the cones before reengaging auto mode.

So, for now, humans still have a purpose behind the wheel. But check out the rest of Eric Jaffe's article to see how long that might last. (Spoiler: not very long!)

Despite Google's engineers taking control of the car twice in a relatively short drive, the sense that the driverless vehicle's time has nearly arrived is palpable in Jaffe's story.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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