Google Expands Autonomous Drive Testing Program to Austin, Texas

After years of extensive research and development into autonomous driving systems, software giant Google recently launched the latest phase of its self-driving car program: real-world testing of fully-autonomous pod-like driverless cars on the streets in and around its headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Following a long line of autonomous vehicles which trace their ancestry back to semi-autonomous Toyota Prius prototype vehicles from 2009, Google’s pod-like cars are currently being supervised by fully-trained Google specialists. Fitted with removable steering wheels and pedal boxes, Google’s pod-cars will eventually ditch the conventional controls altogether and operate completely autonomously, but actually run the same software found in Google’s fleet of more conventional Lexus RX450h hybrid autonomous vehicles.

Google's self-driving cars are heading to Austin, Texas.

Google’s self-driving cars are heading to Austin, Texas.

But while the eyes of the world are now focused on Google’s custom-made, custom-designed pod-like urban electric vehicles, that doesn’t mean Google’s existing autonomous drive prototypes — namely the Lexus RX450h prototypes — don’t have a place in Google’s autonomous driving program.

Indeed, while many will continue to drive in and around Mountain View, adding to the many millions of miles clocked up by Google’s self-driving cars on a weekly basis, two are already on assignment in a new location: Austin, Texas.

That’s according to Reuters, which said on Tuesday that Google has just opened up a new autonomous vehicle test program in the Bat City.

The move to Austin is an important one for the software company, which to date has focused almost exclusively on operating its autonomous driving cars in and around the San Francisco Bay. Indeed, this is the first time since the autonomous driving program was launched at Google in 2009 that the company has sent its cars outside of California — save for a few media demonstrations and show appearances.

Given several other states, including Nevada and Florida, already offer autonomous car test programs, the choice of Austin Texas may be a strange one. But as Fortune points out, Austin has some features which make it the ideal venue for testing autonomous car technology.

First of all, there’s the city itself. Known for being one of the more liberal and forward-thinking cities in the great state of Texas, Austin is known for its innovative, forward-thinking attitudes to the world.

“They’re a city that loves innovation, whether it’s in music or food or technology,” Google’s Courtney Hohne said in a statement to Fortune yesterday. “We know they’ll give us some great feedback on how we’re driving.”

Meanwhile, Google's custom-made pod-cars will be tested on the roads of Mountain View.

Meanwhile, Google’s custom-made pod-cars will be tested on the roads of Mountain View.

Then there’s the city itself. According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Texas — who ran simulation models based on actual road trips made in the Austin — the compact urban core of Austin, combined with its surrounding urban sprawl, are perfect for autonomous driving programs.

Indeed, the report suggested, the ways in which the roads in the city of Austin are laid out, each autonomous vehicle could displace nine traditional cars on the same streets, dramatically reducing the number of cars on the road overall and reducing both congestion and pollution too.

Finally, there’s the small fact that Google already has an established base in Austin, thanks to it being one of the first cities to receive Google’s super-fast gigabit Google Fibre. While that might not be a big factor at the moment, an expansion of Google’s autonomous drive program there will be made far easier by a high-capacity, super-fast internet connection between Austin and Mountain View.

As with all the other autonomous driving programs taking place around the U.S. right now, we’ll be keeping a special eye on progress in Austin and you’ll know how well the autonomous Lexus RX450h cars fit in as soon as we do.


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