An interview with a Google Street View driver

“As long as the data gets collected, that’s all that matters.”

In 2007, Google Street View began mirroring our landscapes starting with several cities in the United States. It has since photographed most of Europe, North America, Latin America, and Australia and continues to add new territories to the map.

Checking out Google’s promotional material about this project, you might think the Street View cars were self-driving already, but there is always a worker steering every wheel and witnessing the image capture. Recently, I had the chance to interview a Street View driver over email, on the condition of his anonymity.

How did you get into working as a Street View Driver?

It was through a temp job agency. I was looking for a job after I moved to NYC and went through Craigslist. Found the offer for a driving position, nothing related to the actual job or Google or anything. Once I was approved by the agency, I was contacted by the Streetview team explaining what the job actually entailed. This way they didn’t have a ton of people applying knowing what the job was.

You mentioned you went to the New York International Auto Show with the Street View team. Do you hang out with the other drivers a lot? What’s the community like?

Yes and no. Most of the drivers treated it as an actual temp job and stayed for only a few months. My contract was renewed as I worked hard and knew the streets. I recently moved to NYC but I grew up there, so technically moved back I should say.

The auto show was more just for me to have fun, I love cars. Getting back to the drivers question, I found that most of them were there just to do a job or earn money and didn’t really associate themselves with others. Plus don’t forget, we are usually on our own most of the day driving, so we don’t really see each other too much. On occasion there will be meetings or events when we all meet up. But I haven’t really made any lasting friendships through the job.

How long have you been working for Google? Have there been significant changes in equipment since you started?

Lost track of the time, two years now about? And slight improvements, nothing major. Software updates are a regular thing, and sometime there might be a new medium of travel/photography. For example, when I first started, they were moving on to Streetview teams inside businesses, as well as non-road areas like hiking trails and underwater.

What do you think of Google’s fleet of driverless cars?

Don’t really have an opinion on them. I won’t see them being utilized in my lifetime or probably my kid’s lifetime (if I ever have kids). It’ll be a long time before they are fully legal and have laws set about them/insurance. I wouldn’t want one, I like driving.

How often are you followed by pedestrians?

The car is a moving billboard. Everyone wants to have themselves on an Internet-wide camera. They’re attention-whores. People flip the bird, they’ll moon the camera, sometimes if they know we are in town they’ll make a sign or something. They want to show friends they’ve become a lesser-known internet celebrity than a 10-year-old with a YouTube account primarily watched by their peers and family. It’s insignificant, but to them it’s the world. And it makes my job harder.

I was reading some of your Reddit comments and at one point you mentioned you shot the after pictures in a side-by-side comparison of Hurricane Sandy damage. How do you feel about your role archiving and representing cities this way?

It is fun capturing the city in what I believe will be represented for a long time. It’s a really interesting venture and with all of the emerging technology, it’ll be interesting to see how it progresses and will be utilized. It is really just a novelty, but can be helpful to see what the front of a house or business looks like before you get there.

Does it get boring? How much freedom do you have to take breaks or rest stops?

Anything you do every day eventually gets boring. Traffic sucks of course. And breaks and rest stops are whenever. As long as the data gets collected, that’s all that matters.

What kind of music are you listening to while you work?

Music every so often, it’s actually more audio-books and podcasts. If I’m stuck in one place and can only listen to things, it might as well be informative and interesting. I listen to a ton of NPR podcasts they record, Car Talk is great for example. Stuff You Should Know is really cool as well, love those guys. Rooster Teeth’s Podcast is great as I love video games.

As for music, it’s super random. I love creole jazz, modern rock, 80–90s rock, mushy acoustic songs. It’s basically whatever mood I’m in.

What are the company’s policies around recording activity in violent, illegal, or crisis situations? Are you allowed to intervene?

No different than if it was you driving a regular car. I don’t get involved in anything. I’m not a cop. If I record something that isn’t to the requirements, I go back and record it again. I’ve had some harassing people trying REALLY hard to get into shots and even followed me. I’ve called the cops on them after several warnings.

Could you tell me about the camera in use? It’s video, right? Do you see the footage that is captured? Is it higher-res than what we view on the web?

Erm, hard to explain in that sense. It does take single photos, but it’s doing so at a rapid and continuous pace. So it could technically be considered both. To better explain this, here’s this link: http://www.google.com/maps/about/behind-the-scenes/streetview/ I do see what is being captured but don’t usually look at the screen while driving. I usually review it every hour or so. And it is usually higher-res, but it looks different that what the final product looks like. Once it is stitched together, (again the technicality may be different), the actual resolution is higher but the quality is reduced so it doesn’t eat up bandwidth and can load faster.

Are there any images you could share from the car or of the car?

I don’t have any myself. They usually don’t allow you to keep your phone on you and provide their own, so you’re not distracted. I use my iPod for podcasts and music usually, so I don’t have a camera on me most of the time.

Any other unusual obstacles about the job?

Ever heard of what London cab drivers have to go through? They need to learn the streets and plan accordingly without any maps or GPS. I have the luxury of technology, but it’s still very easy to mess up and find yourself at the butt-end of a one-way and you have to go all the way around to get onto that street. It helps knowing the area even with a GPS. Plus in NYC and other big cities, skyscrapers can hurt the GPS reception and also affect its latency.

It’s just like driving a delivery van or pizza car, with the added difficulty of making sure the ball of cameras on top is getting what it needs. Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful with this. Although it’s not an easy job, more than people think, when it comes down to it, it isn’t too rough. When talking about the underwater view or Business View, well that changes everything. Unfortunately I’m not a part of those projects.