Chatting with a Google Street View Driver

Note: This post was archived from, my previous site I used to blog at and was written before I joined Google.

Note: some details in this post have been skipped or generalized to be a bit vague to protect the identity of the Google Streeview driver.

Google Street View Car

Sometime in the past few weeks, I was walking with a friend when we spotted a very funny looking car. We both immediately knew what it was and as the car drove closer by, our suspicions were confirmed: it was a Google Streetview car outside London. Feeling naughty, I shouted at the car as it drove by something along the lines of "there are privacy laws" and to my surprise an old man across the streed did the same! It was very funny how both of us knew what a Streetview car looked like!

Then it hit me: the road we were on that the car was driving into was a dead end road. Picture time! So I dropped my stuff and asked my friend to watch them while I set up my phone and found a good spot to take some photos as the car drove back out again. So I watched as the car reached the end, did a U-turn and drove back out again. However, as it got close to me, the car pulled up into an empty parking spot and the driver came out. He shouted at me saying "I know you want to take pictures but I don't want to be in them." I obliged.

While taking the photos, I talked to the driver a little bit. Here are some details from the notes I scribbled afterwards:

  • Google has a centre in Milton Keynes where this operation was based in. The drivers just showed up for "a driving job" (his words) and didn't know it was for Google until the arrived to pick up the cars.
  • The drivers were given training to use the computers inside the car. It's not hard: it's a large-ish touch screen (I guessed about 17in or maybe a 19in when I saw it) with a record and a pause button.
  • The screen is to the left of the driver in the passenger seat with a large server at the back in the trunk. The back seats of the car were removed - it was just a big space. The connections into the server were just power and ethernet. The ethernet seemed to be going up to the camera but I'm not sure if it ran to something else.
  • The camera is rain sensitive. It collapses in a very funky way and has to be covered. The drivers are under strict instructions to do so.
  • This particular driver was very sensitive to the privacy issues. He was having a personal conflict about the whole thing and was stopped by (his words) "10 people" that very day. Why? Because only recently had the BBC published an article about Google Streetview starting with Google's plans to launch a mapping tool in the UK could be referred to the Information Commissioner". No wonder the driver didn't want to be in the photo!

Now some photos of the car with notes:

Google StreetView car, front view

The car from the front.

Google StreetView camera

The car's camera. The hexagon Octagon at the top is I think is the camera set itself (so 6 8 cameras in total). The yellow box seems to be the communication/processing circuitry; the yellow box is on the back side of the car and so the white box thing at the right hand side of the image points towards the right of the car. This white box thing seems to swivel up and down but this is just a wild guess.

Google StreetView car, back view

The car's camera kit as seen from the rear of the car. Just guessing what each bit is: Yello box at the top, as above. White boxes to the left and right are the (potentially) swiveling bits - could they be cameras? The yellow disk at the bottom: a wireless communications dish? It could be a GPS receiver.

Update: Looking through some of the other images I had after someone dropped a hint on GTalk to me, the white boxes under the hexagon of cameras are laser range finders. Sure enough, I have a photo that has a warning that it's a "Class 1 Laser".

Update 2: Thanks for all the comments. Yes I couldn't count: there are 8 cameras not 6; that's fixed now. Also, a lot of people wrote about the type of laser range finder and why you'd need it - see the comments below. Finally, lots of people noted a certain irony in the driver not wanting to be photographed. Point taken, but the guy was very conflicted about it. The BBC article was still in memory and clearly some people like me caused his some fuss on that day. He was talking a lot about wanting to quit this job. Deep down I think he did but of course I cannot know.

Update 3:Yes some rain droplets is visible in a photo. It wasn't raining while we were talking but it had rained earlier that day. When the driver parked, the camera hit some trees (you can see that in the photos) and the droplets are from the tree. It's hard rain that gets the equipment as I understand it, and that's when the drivers are supposed to cover up.