Google has created what it calls a "Matrix-style," virtual version of California's road system that it's been using to test self-driving cars before sending them out onto the actual road, according to the Guardian. Google is apparently so thrilled with its simulation that it asked California's government earlier this year, in a letter obtained by the Guardian, whether it could use these virtual simulations in place of actual driving tests when certifying a vehicle for public road tests — and it seems that it may be able to. "Computer simulations are actually more valuable, as they allow manufacturers to test their software under far more conditions and stresses than could possibly be achieved on a test track," Google safety director Ron Medford wrote.
"Computer simulations are actually more valuable."
The simulation maps the entirety of California's road system and has been used to virtually drive Google's autonomous cars for over 4 million miles, according to the Guardian. Back in the real world, Google's cars were last said to have driven around 700,000 miles over a road system that's reportedly just 2,000 miles long. Google says that its digital world allows it to perform decades worth of testing in just hours, running "thousands upon thousands of scenarios" in just that time.
That's likely to be of big help to Google, and the DMV has since responded that simulation testing is not prohibited, which may imply that it can be accepted alongside road tests and track tests. The issue came up because California requires that vehicle manufacturers test autonomous vehicles "under controlled conditions that simulate, as closely as practicable, the real-world conditions" that those vehicles are expected to face before taking them onto public roads for further testing. It was unclear whether "simulate" meant strictly real-world simulations on private courses or if virtual simulations counted as well.
California's rules, however, do bring up another snag when it comes to some upcoming tests on private roads: they require that Google's car have pedals and a steering wheel. When Google first presented its self-made self-driving car earlier this year, the tiny vehicle didn't include any of the traditional controls that a driver would expect. It was a bold vision, but a logical one for Google to begin expressing to the public as it tries to explain what the future of driving will look like.
That future isn't here just yet though, and according to The Wall Street Journal, Google will be temporarily modifying the cars to include steering wheels and pedals in order to meet regulatory requirements when they begins private road tests next month. California's rules will soon require that an autonomous vehicle's operator is able to take "immediate physical control" of it, and Google's car would otherwise be in violation of that.
Though this rule is just now going into effect, Google has surely known that it was coming for a good time before this, so it likely isn't so much an unexpected problem as it is a temporary hurdle. The Journal also reports that California is currently drafting rules for public road tests — planned for a few years from now — that don't require the car to have a steering wheel or pedals, so Google's vision may come into play in the not-so-distant future after all.
And thanks to Google's "Matrix-style" testing world, those who participate in the road tests will apparently have a pretty comfortable ride. The Guardian reports that Google is programming the vehicles to react how humans expect them to — not just how they need to. So when a car needs to avoid an obstacle, it might swerve more than it needs to. "It's not just about the physics of avoiding a crash," a Google spokesperson tells the Guardian. "It's also about the emotional expectation of passengers and other drivers."
Update August 22nd, 8:20AM: Google did not petition California to change its rules on simulation testing, as this article previously stated, but rather asked the DMV to clarify them. The DMV clarified that simulation testing is not prohibited.