The car stopped at stop signs. It glided around curves. It didn't lurch or jolt. The most remarkable thing about the drive was that it was utterly unremarkable.
This isn't damning with faint praise. It's actually high praise for the car in question: Google Inc.'s driverless car.
Most automotive test drives (of which I've done dozens while covering the car industry for nearly 30 years) are altogether different.
There's a high-horsepower car. A high-testosterone automotive engineer. And a high-speed race around a test track by a boy-racer journalist eager to prove that, with just a few more breaks, he really could have been, you know, a NASCAR driver.
This test drive, in contrast, took place on the placid streets of Mountain View, the Silicon Valley town that houses Google's headquarters.
The engineers on hand weren't high-powered "car guys" but soft-spoken Alpha Geeks of the sort that have emerged as the Valley's dominant species. And there wasn't any speeding even though, ironically, Google's engineers have determined that speeding actually is safer than going the speed limit in some circumstances.
"Thousands and thousands of people are killed in car accidents every year," said Dmitri Dolgov, the project's boyish Russian-born lead software engineer, who now is a U.S. citizen, describing his sense of mission. "This could change that."
Dolgov, who's 36 years old, confesses that he drives a Subaru instead of a high-horsepower beast. Not once during an hour-long conversation did he utter the words "performance," "horsepower," or "zero-to-60," which are mantras at every other new-car test drive. Instead Dolgov repeatedly invoked "autonomy," the techie term for cars capable of driving themselves.
Google publicly disclosed its driverless car program in 2010, though it began the previous year. It's part of the company's "Google X" division, overseen directly by co-founder Sergey Brin and devoted to "moon shot" projects by the Internet company, as Dolgov puts it, that might take years, if ever, to bear fruit.
So if there's a business plan for the driverless car, Google isn't disclosing it. Dolgov, who recently "drove" one of his autonomous creations the 450 miles (725 km) or so from Silicon Valley to Tahoe and back for a short holiday, simply says his mission is to perfect the technology, after which the business model will fall into place.
NOT WINNING BEAUTY CONTESTS, YET
Judging from my non-eventful autonomous trek through Mountain View, the technology easily handles routine driving. The car was a Lexus RX 450h,