Editor's note: The U.S. chipmaking giant Intel announced Monday that it had reached a deal to acquire an Israeli company called Mobileye for $15 billion -- making it the biggest buy of an Israeli high-tech company ever. Mobileye is a leader in the race to make self-driving vehicles a reality. Weeks ago, Washington Post reporter William Booth went for a drive in one of company's test cars. Here's how it felt.
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JERUSALEM -- Ziv Aviram has one of his tech guys bring the test car around to the parking lot. The co-founder of Mobileye tells me he's going to drive around Jerusalem without touching the steering wheel.
"Hop in," the CEO says.
The test car bristles with eight cameras. The interior contains laptops with blinking screens. The tech guy jumps into the back seat and begins to do things. You hear typing.
Mobileye is a global player, building Advanced Driver Assistance Systems for two dozen international automobile manufacturers. These are the sensor packages that auto-brake for imminent collisions, warn drivers about lane drift and reduce speed when approaching slow-moving vehicles. Calamity-avoidance stuff.
"Buckle up," Aviram instructs. "We go for a ride."
This street-ready prototype is good for "proof of concept" testing, meaning it is not fully self-driving yet. When the true autonomous vehicles go on sale, Aviram promises, you won't see any cameras, maybe just lenses. The processors, satellite receivers, mapping, laser radar, sonar will all be shrunk. The tech guy in the back seat will disappear.
Later, they will get rid of the steering wheel, too.
I want to trust Aviram. But this is Israel, a place where people boast about how badly they drive. Many Israelis already drive without their hands on the wheel, because they are drinking coffee or having a smoke while talking on a cellphone.
Aviram hand-steers Mobileye's white sedan out of the lot into traffic. He waits until he has merged onto a decent three-lane highway before he lets go of the wheel.
"You're driving now in the future," he says.
Mobileye is partnering with BMW, Intel and Delphi to make this happen sooner than you might think.
I notice that Aviram, while in spiel mode, is not really paying total attention to the road ahead, or to the beater passenger van filled with yeshiva kids shouldering into our lane from the right, without signaling, or to the gravel truck up ahead, belching smoke, crawling in the passing lane on the left.
"You're in the time machine," he purrs.
We're in heavy Jerusalem traffic, I think.
"You have the opportunity to glimpse how our lives will look in a few years."
I'm glimpsing the van muscling into our space.
Then Aviram has to subtly adjust the wheel -- for the van.
This is not a gotcha moment. This is beta-testing. If the technologists in San Jose, Yokohama and Munich are right, it will soon give way to the biggest advance in automotive technology since the Ford Model T rolled off assembly lines around a century ago. In the 2020s, they say, autonomous cars will be the wheeled version of the smartphone.
"In two decades, it will be illegal to drive in developed countries," Aviram predicts.
He understands that this concept takes a few minutes to sink in.
"The wave is too big to stop," he says.
The world's first self-driving taxis, operated by a company called nuTonomy, began picking up passengers in central Singapore in August. An Associated Press reporter along for a test ride noted that "the safety driver" had to tap on the brakes -- but just once.
Uber customers in downtown Pittsburgh started getting rides in semiautonomous cars with a human chaperon at the wheel in September. A journalist from Wired reported that the human driver took back control several times, but in a very low-key way:
"Once, he's not happy with how long the car is waiting before slowing for a pedestrian. Another time, he manually steers around a double parked truck, knowing the system will just stop and wait for it to move."
In the United States, the presence of a human driver remains a requirement -- just in case.
Tragedy has already struck.
An early adapter named Joshua Brown was killed while driving his all-electric Tesla Model S in hands-free Autopilot Mode in Florida last year. The vehicle crashed into a white semitrailer truck, which the car apparently thought was a cloudy sky. (Mobileye supplied the vision sensors for Tesla and blamed the radar; Mobileye and Tesla ended their relationship.)
But the machines are learning.
Google's car project is called Waymo, for "New Way Forward in Mobility." Autonomous cars are driving around in four cities and have racked up 2 million miles in self-driving mode.
In California, which is closely tracking the experiment, Waymo operators reported 341 "disengagement incidents" in 2015, in which a test driver had to take control of the steering wheel, gas pedal or brakes. Last year, there were just 124 disengagements, despite an increase in the numbers of cars and miles driven.
As the Mobileye test car cruises through tunnels down Jerusalem's Menachem Begin Expressway, Aviram says: "This is semiautonomous first implementation," meaning: Don't get too excited yet.
In all, we drove at 50 mph for a half-hour along the highways. We didn't take surface streets. It was like hands-free cruise control, but better. "The vehicle understands the scene in front of us and drives accordingly," Aviram said. The car accelerated and braked, maintained its lanes and even changed lanes.
The self-driving revolution is gathering speed. There's better imaging, sensors, sonar, software and laser radar. Faster satellite positioning, sharper detail.
Still, a Global Positioning Satellite can pinpoint a position to within only about three to six feet. To self-drive, you need to be talking inches.
Aviram says companies such as Mobileye and the automakers will partner to gather data from all the vehicles traveling the same roads and use it to create "drivable paths." Mapping systems pioneered by the Israeli company Waze already do this.
The biggest challenge, according to Aviram, will be teaching artificial-intelligence programs humanlike intuition.
He gives an example: Four cars simultaneously approach a four-way intersection with stop signs.
"A machine might sit there all day, waiting," he says. But a human driver would intuit who goes first. The processors of autonomous cars will have to learn this "human-level negotiation."
The hardest situation developers face? "The most effort may go into how to merge into traffic," Aviram says. Imagine a traffic circle in Rome or the entrance to New York's Holland Tunnel. The machine will have to learn from millions of possible scenarios -- as well as figure out different countries' driving habits.
Later, after we safely parked the test car back at the Mobileye offices, I asked Aviram why he is unconcerned about the loss of our right to drive.
"I am also a driver, and I like to drive," he said. But he has also computed the odds of injury or worse.
Driver error, he noted, is responsible for 93 percent of car accidents. There are 1.5 million auto fatalities a year worldwide, and more than 50 million people injured. The economic costs are estimated at $500 billion.
"Driving is like a global pandemic," he concluded. Self-driving cars are the cure -- or so he says.
Then he ticked off some positives. Imagine a driving experience, he said, in which your car operates itself while you doze, work, chat, read, look out the window.
"Once there were elevator operators," he said. "We don't miss them."
In the future, there's no steering wheel, so the car has a little card table and passengers sit salon-style around it. The vehicle is a lightweight plastic bubble. It runs on whatever is the cleanest or cheapest energy source.
What about all the taxi drivers? The truckers? My FedEx delivery person? What about Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road"? Bruce and Mary don't drive away in an autonomous pod.
Aviram said that when the automobile was invented, the livery, buggy and horse industries rebelled, and lost. Robots are now ubiquitous in manufacturing -- and so robots will drive vehicles.
I asked Aviram if he'd watched the "Terminator" films. He said he has. But not to worry.