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How You Can Test One Of Google's Self-Driving Cars

In a Backchannel post, editor Steven Levy details his experience behind the wheel of one of Google's self-driving cars.

So you want to take a self-driving car for a spin? Backchannel editor Steven Levy, who had the chance to test out Google's crop of autonomous vehicles, published a post on Wednesday that pulls back the curtain on the company's exclusive training center—and reveals how you, too, can get behind the wheel of a Google car.

The genesis of the testing program, Levy explains, was practical: Google had to collect more data on its self-driving cars, and to do so, the company needed more drivers.

"We had two objectives," Chris Urmson, the head of Google's self-driving car program, told Levy. "One was to drive 1,000 miles of interesting roads, and the other was to drive 100,000 miles of roads. At the time, this was 10 times more than anyone had ever driven before with one of these things. We realized we couldn’t just have our developers in the cars all day — we had to get some people to come out and drive them."

Gif: via Backchannel

In 2009, Google started doing just that—and it turns out driver recruitment was nothing like Google's infamously difficult hiring process. From Levy's piece:

It figured out the profile of these drivers pretty much on the fly. The first hires were tone setters like Brian Torcellini, then a recent urban studies major at San Diego State, taking some time off after graduation — surfing trips and the like — before facing up to a career. A friend who worked at Google recommended him. His interviewers were vague about what the job entailed. "Basically they were like, ‘Do you like cars? Do you like technology? Do you want to drive pretty much all day, everyday?’" he says. "I said sure, I’m happy to sign up. They led me to believe that I might be working with the Street View team, but I walk in and see self-driving cars being built. And I’m like, okay, this is awesome."

Torcellini went on to become head of operations for the testing program. Though the training process has since been streamlined, the criteria for driver selection hasn't changed too much. Google wants to bring on people who will take a different approach to the cars than the company's engineers, Levy writes:

Stephanie Villegas, who runs the Castle testing program, took the same path as Torcellini from contract driver to Google employee. She previously worked as a marketing and communications manager at a place called Azalea Boutique. She has a bachelor’s degree in art from Berkeley. This is typical of Google’s safety drivers. One had been doing spreadsheets at Oracle. Another was an assistant manager at a bakery. These backgrounds are not accidental; Google want its hires to view the experience as drivers, not as engineers trying to deconstruct what’s going on in the software code.

Levy's advice for aspiring drivers is to exploit your connections—and make sure your driving skills are up to par:

Right now, I suspect a lot of millennial liberal arts grads are wondering, "How do I get to be a Google test driver?" From my somewhat limited sampling, I would say the best start is to be a friend of someone who’s already doing it — a lot of the people I spoke to came in via the friend-of-a-friend route, like Torcellini. That said, Google is looking for people who are smart, socially engaging, and observant.

One other thing: "You just really have to be a kick-ass driver," says Torcellini. "That doesn’t mean you can take a hairpin turn at 50 miles per hour and drift the car around cones and stuff like that. It’s really paying attention to everything and predicting how the social aspect of driving works."

Indeed, Google takes candidates on a test-drive, observing how well they handle the car and whether they can display their automotive skills while conversing.

For more intel on Google's testing process—and exclusive photos—read Levy's full write-up on Backchannel.

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