SAN FRANCISCO — Google is countering the release of Apple's latest iPhones with two devices running on a new version of Android software designed to steer and document even more of its users' lives.
The Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X unveiled Tuesday are the first smartphones sold with an Android upgrade called "Marshmallow." It features changes that will give expanded powers to Android's personal assistant, Google Now, so it can explore the information that people call up in the mobile applications.
Previously, Google Now learned about its users' interests and daily habits by analyzing search requests and scanning information contained in emails.
The Marshmallow version of Android enables users to summon Google Now to scan whatever content might be on a mobile device's screen so it can present pertinent information about the topic of a text, a song, a video clip or an article.
The new Android feature, called "Now on Tap," will be activated by holding down the device's home button or speaking, "OK Google," into the microphone. That action will prompt Now on Tap to scan the screen in an attempt to figure out how to be the most helpful. Or, if speaking, users can just say what they are seeking, such as "Who sings this?"
"In a multiscreen world, it is even more important for Google to do the hard work so the experience is simple and delightful for the users," Google CEO Sundar Pichai said.
Apple's new operating system also has programmed the iPhone's Siri assistant to be more intuitive so it can anticipate what the user might want or need before being explicitly asked.
Google began taking pre-orders for the Nexus phones in the U.S., United Kingdom, Ireland and Japan on Tuesday with prices for the 6P starting at $499 and $379 for the 5X with no commitment to a wireless contract required. They are expected to start shipping by mid-October.
The Nexus phones are undercutting Apple, which sells the iPhone 6s for $649 and the 6S Plus for $749 without a subsidy from a wireless carrier.
Google uses its Nexus line of phones to showcase how the company would like Android to be set up. Most phone makers, though, still take advantage of the freedom that Google gives them to alter Android, although the free software usually is still set up to drive traffic to Google's search engine, YouTube video site and other digital services.
The Nexus phones also feature better cameras than previous models, matching similar upgrades that Apple just made to its iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus.
The Nexus 6P has a 5.7-inch screen, slightly larger than the iPhone 6s Plus. The Nexus 5X has a 5.2-inch screen.
But it won't be necessary to have a Nexus phone to get Marshmallow. People who own an Android phone released in the past few years will receive a the option to install a free upgrade beginning next week.
The debut of the latest Nexus phones underscores the steadily intensifying rivalry between Google and Apple as they duel for consumers' loyalty in the increasingly important mobile device market. The battle also encompasses tablets and is starting to spill over into the living room as both companies introduce devices that help people watch Internet video on their TVs and listen to online music through their speakers.
Besides its Nexus phones, Google also began selling upgrades to its Chromecast video-streaming device and a new Chromecast model that can be plugged into speakers to play music from a phone or an Internet service. The devices will sell for $35 apiece, the same price that Google has been charging for the original Chromecast, which has won over a lot of households.
Google disclosed Tuesday that more than 20 million of the Chromecast video devices have been sold since the gadget's debut two years ago.
Google also provided a peek at a tablet called the Pixel C that is aimed at consumers and workers who want a device that can accommodate a lot of typing. The $499 tablet comes with a 10-inch display screen an attachable $149 keyboard that transforms the device into the equivalent of a laptop, when needed. Apple will begin selling a similar model of its pioneering iPad with a 13-inch screen later this fall. Prices start at $799 for that iPad and $169 for the keyboard.
Apple got a head start on Google with the release of its newest iPhones last week. More than 13 million of the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus were sold during their first three days on the market, according to Apple, the strongest debut for the device yet.
Although iPhones tend to generate more excitement and longer lines when they are released, far more smartphones run on Android. More than 1.4 billion devices worldwide are now powered by Android, up from 1 billion a year ago, according to Google. Meet Google's driverless car drivers
After a friend recommended that he join a secret Google project six years ago, Brian Torcellini suddenly found himself on the road to an occupational oxymoron. He became a driver in a driverless car.
Torcellini, 31, leads a crew of test, or "safety," drivers who are legally required to ride in Google's fleet of 48 robot cars. They only take control in emergencies. Otherwise, they make observations that help the Internet company's engineers program the cars to navigate the roads without human assistance.
"A lot of people go to work and sit in a cubicle," Torcellini says. "Our cube just happens to move around the roads. And if we are successful, we are going to put ourselves out of a job."
The driverless cars already have logged more than 2 million miles in six years of sometimes tedious testing on private tracks, highways and city streets located mostly near Google's Mountain View, California, headquarters.
The vehicles have traveled more than half that distance in automated mode, with one test driver in place to take control of the car if the technology fails or a potentially dangerous situation arises. Meanwhile, another driver sits in the front passenger seat typing notes about problems that need to be fixed and traffic scenarios that need to be studied.
"I don't want to compare myself to an astronaut, but it kind of feels like that sometimes," says Google test driver Ryan Espinosa while riding in an automated Lexus that recently took an Associated Press reporter on a 20-minute ride around town without requiring any human intervention.
If the technology advances as Google envisions, the only people sitting in driverless cars by 2020 will be passengers looking for an easier way to get around.
Even fewer test drivers will be working because the driverless cars will be completely autonomous, eliminating the need for the vehicles to be equipped with steering wheels or brake pedals. Everything will be controlled through a combination of sensors, lasers, software and intricate maps — a vision that could very well leave many of Google's test drivers looking for a new line of work.
The job requires a sense of adventure, something Torcellini acquired when he began to surf in high school. His other passions include spear fishing and scuba diving, which he likens to the sensation he gets when he climbs into one of Google's self-driving cars and pushes the button that activates the vehicle's robotic controls.
"When you go scuba diving and take a moment to really think about it, you realize you are doing something that isn't supposed to be humanly possible: you are breathing underwater," Torcellini says. "It's the same kind of feeling you get in one of these cars. It's not supposed to be humanly possible."
While the engineers who are programming the robot cars have technical backgrounds, most of the test drivers don't.
Torcellini worked in a drug store warehouse while getting his degree in political science at San Diego State University. He dreamed of pursuing a career writing about surfing. He ended up at Google in 2009 after a friend who worked for the company suggested he interview for an opening on a then-secret project.
Espinosa, 27, was working in a bicycle shop before he was hired as a test driver two-and-half years ago. Stephanie Villegas, 28, was a swim instructor, knife sharpener and bond trader before becoming a test driver. Other test drivers are military veterans and former photographers. They all share at least one thing in common: spotless driving records.
Before they are entrusted with the cars, Google's test drivers must complete three-week training courses. The drivers are taught to take control of the robot car whenever there is any moment of doubt or danger.
Google employs "dozens" of test drivers but won't reveal the precise number. It's likely around 100 because California law requires two test drivers per vehicle, and Google's fleet currently consists of 25 pod-like cars and 23 Lexuses.
A few of those self-driving cars Google also recently began cruising around Austin, Texas, so a few of the test drivers are based there.
The crew consists of a mix of full-time employees and contractors, some of whom are eventually hired by the company.
The drivers who start off as contractors begin at $20 per hour with "many opportunities" for overtime when they log more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week, according to Google's recent help-wanted listings posted on Glassdoor.com. The drivers who become employees receive company stock options in addition to their salaries, though Google won't disclose how much they are paid.
Besides having clean driving records, Google's test drivers say the job requires a combination of good judgment, patience and fearlessness. The self-driving cars were in 16 accidents from May 2010 through August, but they are becoming more frequent as the vehicles spend more time on public roads. Half of the collisions have happened since February — a stretch when the self-driving cars were traveling an average of about 10,000 miles per week on public streets in autonomous mode. There have been no major injuries reported so far.
The self-driving technology hasn't been to blame for any of the accidents, according to Google, though it says one collision was caused by an employee who was steering a robot car while running a personal errand. In all but three of the accidents, Google's self-driving cars have been rear-ended, a trend that the company believes has to do with the large number of motorists who are texting, talking on the phone or otherwise doing something besides paying attention to the roads and their surroundings.
"There are tons of situations where we see people who just aren't very good at driving out there," Torcellini says. "It's up to us to teach the (robot) cars to be better than those drivers, and even better than the best drivers, too."