Google Passed Its Nevada Driving Test With Flying Colors–And Control Of The Road Conditions

DMV logs obtained by IEEE Spectrum suggest a slightly more complicated story.

Google Passed Its Nevada Driving Test With Flying Colors–And Control Of The Road Conditions
Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and Sergey Brin in a self-driving car on January 20, 2011 [Photo: courtesy of Google]

Google’s self-driving cars are adorable as hell. And for all the good they’ll one day do for our congested roadways, the vehicles, which have logged more than 700,000 miles, might not be ready for commercial use anytime soon. Currently, the only governing body to have tested the vehicles on open roads is the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles in May 2012. The tricked-out Toyota Prius passed the DMV’s test, no problem.


Or at least that’s what we were told. New driving log documents obtained this month by IEEE Spectrum suggest that Google may have had more control of the test than the public had been led to believe.

For example, Nevada officials shared that the Google’s autonomous Toyota Prius passed the test almost immediately. What has not been revealed until now, however, is that Google chose the test route and set limits on the road and weather conditions that the vehicle could encounter, and that its engineers had to take control of the car twice during the drive.

According to the report, and with the DMV’s blessing, Google was able to map out the route the self-driving vehicle took ahead of time. Chris Urmson, now head of Google’s self-driving car project, was in the driver’s seat “in case anything went wrong,” along with another Google engineer and two employees of the Nevada DMV.

These limitations aren’t new, but they often get lost in discussions about the car’s world-changing potential. A report by MIT Technology Review in August revealed a laundry list of limitations that the public might not be aware of: That the cars are incapable of navigating about 99% of the country. That they can’t be taken for a spin in snow or heavy rain. That they are incapable of swerving around big potholes. That their stoplight-scanning cameras are vulnerable if the sun hits them just right.

One day soon, Google’s self-guided cars–which have a stellar safety record–will help us cope with all sorts of problems, from drunk driving to helping the disabled zip around. But for all the admirable progress Google has made, as of 2014, the robo-cars of the future might not be as far along as we thought.

Read the rest of the DMV logs here.

[h/t: IEEE Spectrum]

About the author

Chris is a staff writer at Fast Company, where he covers business and tech. He has also written for The Week, TIME, Men's Journal, The Atlantic, and more.