- Omar L. Gallaga American-Statesman Staff
The roads of a small part of Austin have gotten a little more autonomous.
On Tuesday, Google is going public with a project some had already spotted around town in recent weeks: One of its self-driving cars, a Lexus RX 450h, has been driving and mapping here. With two humans on board.
“We’re really excited to come to Austin, and we hope that Austinites are excited about our project being there,” confirmed Jennifer Haroon, head of business operations for the Google Self-Driving Car Project. The project began in 2009 and has made big strides in the last year. In December, the Mountain View, Calif., company unveiled a rounded, arch-shaped prototype the company built. The company’s self-driving vehicles have logged more than a million miles so far.
The Lexus model uses the same software and sensors that allow it to navigate city streets and highways, but it is not limited to 25 mph as the prototype cars are. However, you shouldn’t expect to see the vehicle or a second Lexus hybrid on its way to town, driving ghostlike through the city without human assistance. Two “safety drivers” — Google employees — will be in the vehicle at all times. Austin is the first city where Google’s self-driving technology is being tested outside of Mountain View.
Haroon said that’s because Austin has been so welcoming of other Google technologies, including the high-speed Internet/cable service Google Fiber, and because of the company’s multiple offices here. “We’ve loved how much Austin embraces innovation,” Haroon said. “From technology to the music to food. We feel like that matches the spirit of both Google and the self-driving car project.”
In advance of bringing self-driving cars to Austin, Google says it met with the office of Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas Department of Transportation, state Sen. Kirk Watson, the Texas Department of Public Safety, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo.
In a press release from Google, TxDOT Executive Director Joe Weber called the self-driving technology “mature and ready to be tested.
“As TxDOT focuses its efforts on the reduction of congestion and highway safety, we welcome and support Google’s autonomous vehicle test within the state of Texas,” Weber said.
Google’s key selling points on self-driving cars have been safety and accessibility. The company says it believes it can reduce the number of deaths on U.S. roads by eliminating the most dangerous factor in driving: human error and distraction. In 2013, there were 32,719 deaths resulting from motor vehicle traffic crashes in the U.S. Google’s self-driving cars also could be a boon to those who can no longer drive or who would otherwise have to rely on public transportation. Companies including Uber and Mercedes-Benz are actively testing self-driving technology.
The Lexus vehicle features a small spinning dome on its roof and mounted sensors on all sides of the vehicle. The sensors use lasers and cameras to create a 3-D map of the car’s environment. It doesn’t use Google Maps but rather its own more detailed map software, which the Lexus cars will be building out here as they go. The technology can not only detect road conditions, obstacles and other cars but also pedestrians, bicyclists and even police officers signaling with their hands on the streets.
In a TED Talk, Chris Urmson, director of the Self-Driving Car Project, describes in detail how driverless cars see the road and how the technology differs from current driver-assistance features. The self-driving cars can “see” much farther than a human driver and in a constant 360-degree range. Eventually, Google expects passengers would be able to simply push a button in the car to get from one place to another.
In May, Google began releasing monthly reports for the project. In its June report, the company said the cars have been involved in 14 minor accidents in the six years of the project. “Not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident,” the report states.
Acevedo said in Google’s release, “Keeping Austin’s roads safe is one of our highest priorities, so we look forward to seeing how self-driving car technology might someday improve traffic safety. Technology that never gets distracted or tired or irritable behind the wheel could make a real difference.”
Haroon said the company could gain experience from putting its cars into different driving, cycling and pedestrian traffic patterns and climates than on its home turf. It’s likely the company will try out self-driving cars in other cities with the same goal in mind.
Google said it is looking for feedback from people who see the two Lexus vehicles around town, which will be mapping and navigating north and northeast of downtown for the foreseeable future. The company has a public website at google.com/selfdrivingcars where other drivers can submit feedback on how they’re driving. Safety drivers in the vehicle can take over driving but are primarily there to give feedback to Google’s engineering team on the smoothness of the ride, Haroon said.