Google’s Prototype Self-Driving Cars Coming to Austin for Testing

By LAURA LOREK
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Troy Livingston, CEO, The Thinkery, Chris Urmson, Director, Google Self-Driving Car Project, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and City Councilwoman Ann Kitchen in front of the Google autonomous car prototype

Troy Livingston, CEO, The Thinkery, Chris Urmson, Director, Google Self-Driving Car Project, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and City Councilwoman Ann Kitchen in front of the Google autonomous car prototype

Google is bringing its autonomous vehicle prototype to Austin for testing.

The compact two door, two-seater white cars, which Google has created in partnership with Roush Industries in Detroit, will be hitting the roads of Austin in the next week or so.

The cute little electric cars kind of resemble a miniature Volkswagen beetle combined with the futuristic styling of a George Jetson Aerocar. The prototype cars don’t have a steering wheel, brake pedal or an accelerator because Google says the cars don’t need them. But that equipment will be onboard during testing for the ride-along drivers to take over, if needed. The cars rely on Google’s sensors and software and GPS to navigate the roads.

Austin is the first city outside of Google’s hometown of Mountain View where it is testing its self-driving car technology. For the past two months, Google has been testing its self-driving Lexus RX450h SUVs in Austin. But those cars have been adapted to handle Google’s equipment. The prototype cars are specially designed and built by Google partners as autonomous vehicles.

Google's self-driving car prototype coming to the streets of Austin

Google’s self-driving car prototype coming to the streets of Austin

On Saturday, Mayor Steve Adler joined Chris Urmson, director of Google Self-Driving Car Project, Jennifer Haroon, the project’s head of business operations and Troy Livingston, CEO of The Thinkery, at a press conference at the Thinkery to introduce Google’s prototype cars to Austin. Google had one on display inside the Thinkery Children’s Museum.

Austin is a hotbed of activity for innovators and entrepreneurs, Adler said. And thousands of people are moving to Austin for the amazing quality of life from music to food to Barton Springs and the outdoors to institutions like the Thinkery that make Austin a wonderful place, he said.

“And we have the traffic to prove it,” Adler said.

Last week, Texas A&M Transportation Institute reported Austin residents waste 52 hours a year stuck in traffic, making it the 12th worst city in the nation for traffic.

IMG_6476The city has already surpassed last year’s number of traffic fatalities and Austin has seen an increase in pedestrian deaths, Adler said.

“Fortunately we might have a long term solution to these problems already right here,” Adler said. “I’m so proud Google has chosen Austin as the first city outside of its hometown for testing of its self driving car. This technology holds enormous promise. And Austin is the ideal community for testing.”

Innovation is part of the DNA of Austin, Adler said. That’s why the city is a perfect place for testing Google’s autonomous vehicle technology, he said.

A few of the prototype vehicles will arrive next week and they will be driven with test drivers aboard on the roads in a small area north and northeast of downtown, according to Google.

Google’s prototype car is designed to take anyone, anywhere with just a push of a button and few spoken instructions.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler announcing Google will be bringing its self-driving prototype cars to Austin.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler announcing Google will be bringing its self-driving prototype cars to Austin.

“These are pretty cute little cars,” Adler said. “And they represent the transformation in transportation.”

Google designed its prototype from the ground up to operate safely and autonomously, Adler said.

The goal is to cut down on accidents primarily caused by human error, reduce the amount of time wasted in traffic each day and provide transportation to blind, disabled and other people who can longer drive like some senior citizens. Autonomous cars can reshape the future of the city, Adler said.

“The potential benefits to Austin and society are enormous,” Adler said.

The problem Google is trying to tackle is huge. In the U.S., 33,000 people die on the road every year. That’s the equivalent of one 737 plane crashing every day, said Urmson, director of the Google Self-Driving Car Project. Google’s self-driving cars are the answer to eliminating most of those tragic accidents, Urmson said.

Google’s sensors onboard the self-driving cars remove blind spots and they can detect objects out a distance of more than two football fields in all directions, Urmson said. That’s particularly helpful at busy intersections, he said. Google’s prototype cars can only go up to 25 miles per hour and have all kinds of built-in safety features, he said.

“The vehicle itself is designed to be safe,” Urmson said. “It is designed with new materials.”

For example, the front end is made of foam and the windshield is soft and flexible to mitigate any accidents that may happen, Urmson said.

Chris Urmson, Director, Google Self-Driving Car Project, talks about the benefits of Google's self-driving cars.

Chris Urmson, Director, Google Self-Driving Car Project, talks about the benefits of Google’s self-driving cars.

So far, Google’s fleet of self-driving cars have logged more than one million miles on the roads. Every week, the fleet of self driving cars logs about 10,000 miles. Google began working on this project six years ago, Urmson said. It has been driving its fleet of Prius and Lexus cars on the highway for a year and a half, he said.

Google’s cars are also programmed to pick up on subtle clues and unexpected situations they may encounter on the roads from other vehicles, bikes and pedestrians, Urmson said.

One of the more unusual situations took place on a residential street in California when one of Google’s self-driving cars encountered a woman in a wheelchair chasing a duck around in the middle of the street with a broom, Urmson said. The car simply stopped and waited for the street to clear before proceeding on its way, he said.

One Google self-driving car encounter with a bicyclist in Austin befuddled the car, according to a Washington Post story. The bicyclist, riding a fixed gear bike, performed a move known as a track-stand at an intersection in which he balanced on the bike by swaying back and forth. Apparently, the Google autonomous vehicle didn’t know what to do in that situation and kept starting and stopping.

For two months, Google’s Lexus self-driving cars have been travelling around Austin with great success, said Haroon, head of business operations of Google’s Self Driving Car Project. Austin has six self-driving cars so far and three of the prototype vehicles on the way in the next few weeks.

“One of the questions I get asked a lot is how does the vehicle deal with deer,” Haroon said. “Yes, it can handle deer, even at night.”

Jennifer Haroon, Head of Business Operations, Google Self-Driving Car Project, says the cars have performed well in Austin for the past two months.

Jennifer Haroon, Head of Business Operations, Google Self-Driving Car Project, says the cars have performed well in Austin for the past two months.

Austin is known as an innovative city and that’s why Google chose to test its cars here, Haroon said. It’s also known as a “vocal” city and she wants Austin citizens to provide Google with feedback on how the cars are operating on the road, she said. Every car has an Internet address, known as a URL, on the back and Google provides information online about the project for citizens, Haroon said.

Besides the deer, the Google cars have had to adjust for horizontal traffic lights, Haroon said. But they are performing well in Austin, she said.

Within four years, Google hopes to have the autonomous vehicles commercially available and citizens throughout the U.S. regularly riding in them, Urmson said. Google is not going to sacrifice safety to get there, but that’s its goal, he said. Urmson has two sons and one is about to turn 12. He told him that when he turns 16 he will not need to get a driver’s license. He will simply ride in a self-driving car.

Comments

  1. Christopher Levy says:

    How exactly are these cars going to alleviate traffic?

    • In theory the more self driving cars there are on the road the greater the reduction in accidents. Also robots avoid tail gating caused breaking and the snake breaking chain reactions which can last for hours after the initial breaking event.

      • Christopher Levy says:

        In theory. It’s funny to see Google try and hoist this crap on Austinites while their management buys $500K supercars for their wives:

        http://www.motorauthority.com/news/1028496_google-exec-buys-wife-a-ferrari-fxx-k?fbfanpage

        • No one is “hoisting” any “crap” on anyone. And wtf does that even have to do with self-driving car research?
          I agree that executives/ceos/business owners make far too much money, and give themselves far too large a paycheck, and expensive toys.. But this isn’t really the topic on which to complain about that.
          Self driving cars are the future, and the technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate for something like this. It’s really amazing technology, and it will make life easier for everyone, and eliminate tens of thousands of traffic deaths.

          • Christopher Levy says:

            We can agree to disagree. You Sir are in the major minority here in Austin. We aren’t asking for these cars. Austin doesn’t _want_ these cars. Do you live here?

          • They’re being tested all over the country, not just Austin.. It has nothing to do with you “asking” for these cars, It’s just a good place to test them.
            But do the average people of Austin even have any idea that this is going on, unless they happen to read articles like this? I’d wager that over 90% of them have no clue about this stuff, and wouldn’t care either way. These tests don’t effect them or you in ANY way. It’s absurd and ignorant to be against them at this stage.
            Where I live is of no importance, I do have family there tho. And I think, if you could ask everyone, you’d find that there are plenty of young people in your area who would welcome cars like this. I don’t think you’ll find it’s a minority, but most probably wouldn’t care either way.
            The minority, although it will probably be a loud-minority, will be the people who are against these cars.

    • They’ll alleviate traffic in lots of ways.
      As already said, they’ll reduce accidents, and bad tailgating/breaking habits.
      They will also eventually reduce the number of cars out there, thanks to taxi-like car-sharing services, which google intends to be on the ground floor of. Plenty of people will opt to not own their own car, when they can simply push a button on their phone, and have a self-driving car show up at their door, in just a few minutes.
      As the ratio of self-driving cars on the road, to manual-human cars, goes up, traffic problems and accidents will go down. Not only do they drive safer, they could eventually drive faster, once they take over enough of the roads. And they can also communicate with other cars, to get more sensor data, and find out what the road conditions are like, farther ahead on the road than they themselves can see.
      The communication also means that these cars can find alternate routes that humans wouldn’t bother with, when the traffic starts getting too congested on certain roads. They’ll tell the cars behind them “this road is getting full, switch to some alternative routes, to get where you want to go faster.”

  2. Traffic is well understood, and only infrequently a capacity issue.
    http://www.smartmotorist.com/traffic-and-safety-guideline/traffic-jams.html

  3. Aw, this was a very good post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to generate a good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a whole lot and don’t manage to
    get anything done.

  4. Where I live is of no importance, I do have family there tho. And I think, if you could ask everyone, you’d find that there are plenty of young people in your area who would welcome cars like this.

  5. I¡¦ve learn a few just right stuff here. Definitely price bookmarking for revisiting. I wonder how so much attempt you put to make this type of great informative web site.

Trackbacks

  1. […] wants to have its self-driving cars commercially available in 4 years. Their first (non-Silicon Valley) tests are being done right now in Austin. On a related note, […]

  2. […] September, Google began testing its self-driving prototype vehicles on Austin streets. The cars have actually test drivers onboard […]

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