After years of experimenting with its groundbreaking autonomous vehicle technology almost exclusively in California, Google confirmed Monday that it has begun testing one of its self-driving vehicles in Austin.
A white Lexus RX 450h SUV outfitted with the company’s sensors and software began making trips without the aid of a driver in the city within the past week, said Jennifer Haroon, head of business operations for the Google self-driving car project. Another vehicle will join it in the area for testing this week.
While California and other states have updated their laws to address self-driving vehicles, neither Texas nor Austin has followed suit, meaning Google did not need to get permission before initiating such testing in the city. Company officials briefed Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and the city of Austin about the testing in advance, Haroon said. No public funds are involved in the testing, and the company is not providing any funding to local or state entities related to the testing.
The expansion of the project to Texas comes as the company’s experimental fleet has safely logged over a million miles and its software has matured to be able to simultaneously detect hundreds of different activities going on around a vehicle, Haroon said. Two “safety drivers” will be in each of the vehicles whenever traveling in Austin in self-driving mode.
“They’re there to see how the vehicle is behaving, provide feedback to our engineering team and, if needed, take over [driving],” Haroon said.
Until now, Google’s vehicle testing has mostly centered around the San Francisco area, where the technology giant is based. The new testing will be focused in an area north and northeast of downtown Austin, according to company officials. The cars will not drive autonomously on any area highways, for now. Google officials are hoping Austin will provide its self-driving vehicles with an environment different from what researchers have already explored in recent years.
“We think there may be some geographic differences,” Haroon said. “There could be some differences in driver/pedestrian/bicyclist behavior. We really won’t know until we’ve started testing more.”
See here for previous driverless car blogging. As the story notes, this is not the first time one of these vehicles has visited Austin, though it is the first time for this kind of testing. I’m guessing this will all be fairly low-key – Google would certainly prefer it to be that way – but you never know. Beta testing is often exciting in unanticipated ways. If you happen to see this car tooling around, leave a comment and let us know.