I rode in Google’s self-driving car. This is what impressed me the most.

I rode in Google’s self-driving car. This is what impressed me the most.

Google’s self-driving car knows how to run yellow lights.

But unlike regular humans, it doesn’t have to guess whether it’ll beat the countdown. Instead, it turns what for many of us is a split-second decision based on experience and guts into a heavily calculated dance of probability, speed and trajectory. Roughly 230 feet before it hits an intersection, it scans the light with its cameras and, based on the thousands of other data points it’s tracking in its surroundings, the car will make the right call.

I saw some of this stuff first-hand Sunday during SXSW, when I met a team from Google — sorry, Alphabet — for a private demo in north Austin. Here’s what it’s really like to use the technology that’s poised to reshape how we commute, run our businesses and even design our cities.

The first thing you notice when you get into one of Google’s modified hybrid Lexuses is a long, black bar sitting on the dashboard. This displays the time — in the iconic Roboto typeface you see on Android smartphones — as well as a graphical representation of the car and its surroundings.

This isn’t your average GPS navigation screen, though. This one rendered buildings and obstacles as tiny, shimmering white dots, as if they were cobwebs that had clumped together to form little rectangles and squares. And they constantly refreshed based on what the car’s sensors saw. As we began moving, new readings added new dots to the screen, while others faded away. The overall impression was one of a constantly undulating ocean of data — which, of course, it was.

We paused at the edge of the parking lot before the Googler behind the wheel, Gavino Nastor, warned me he was about to turn on the autonomous mode.

“You’ll just have to trust that my feet are off the pedals, okay?” said Nastor. The whimsicality of his corporate title — Road Warrior — seemed to belie a deadly seriousness about what Google was trying to do to the car industry.

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