By LAURA LOREK
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
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.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.
“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.“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.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.”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.