Austin will be the first city outside of Google’s hometown of Mountain View, Calif., to test the company’s first fully self-driving cars, the company announced Saturday.
Google, which has already made a big push in Austin through the launch of Google Fiber, has been testing self-driving Lexus RX450h SUVs in the city for nearly two months, but the company will now test its first fully self-driving prototypes in Austin.
The pod-like cars are expected to arrive next week and will be seen on roads in a small area north and northeast of downtown sometime in the next few weeks, the company said.
Previous self-driving cars in Austin were operated with drivers in the car monitoring the vehicles. But in the next few weeks, drivers can expect to see Google cars without drivers in Austin. And don’t worry, Austinites, the cars can handle animals jumping out into the middle of the road.
“Yes, it can handle deer,” said Jennifer Haroon, the head of business operations for Google’s self-driving car project who has been meeting with community groups to discuss the launch.
The car is equipped with sensory technology that creates a “security bubble” around it and allows the vehicle to see its surroundings for up to a football field away, said Chris Urmson, director of the Google car project.
The car knows when lights are turning red or green, when pedestrians or bicyclists are around it and when there’s a lane closure ahead, Urmson said. Over time, the cars even begin learning how to predict the motion of objects around them, he said.
Google self-driving cars have been tested for more than 100,000 miles on California roads, Urmson said, and Austin will be the first city anywhere else where the cars will be tested. That will bring new challenges, such as adjusting to the city’s horizontal streetlights — Mountain View has vertical ones — and also seeing how the cars react in different kinds of weather.
Saturday’s announcement was held at the Thinkery museum in the Mueller neighborhood and was attended by company representatives and city officials.
Mayor Steve Adler said Austin is the ideal city for these tests because its people are welcoming and seek out innovation. He said the cars could solve increasingly difficult problems Austin faces such as traffic congestion and pedestrian deaths in car collisions.
“The potential benefits to Austin and to society are enormous,” Adler said. “I am delighted to help welcome Google and these cars to Austin.”