Google Sends its Fleet of Self-Driving Cars North from California to Washington State, Because… Rain (And Other Reasons)

Software giant Google — or rather parent company Alphabet, to use its new, preferred name — might not have an interest in building a Google-branded self driving car that you or I could buy, but it’s certainly intent on building the best autonomous vehicle software algorithms out there.

Google's massive fleet of autonomous cars have covered plenty of miles to date.

Google’s massive fleet of autonomous cars have covered plenty of miles to date.

To do that, it has spent the past few years testing and refining its autonomous vehicle software on a variety of different vehicles in and around its Mountain View California headquarters, ranging from customized Toyota Prius and Lexus 450h hybrids through to specially-designed pod-like low-speed electric vehicles. As the fleet has amassed more and more miles and increased in its collective intelligence, so too has Google expanded the roads it tests its autonomous vehicles on, establishing a secondary autonomous vehicle test fleet in Austin, Texas. And thanks to a recent deal with Ford, Google should soon get plenty more cars to adapt to use its autonomous drive software, including cars like the Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid and Ford Fusion hybrid.

So far, Google’s fleet of autonomous vehicles have racked up an impressive 1.4 million real-world miles, with the software behind each vehicle tackling more than 3 million simulated miles in addition to the real-world tests every day in specially-constructed virtual reality testing suites. But while Google’s vehicles are now a familiar sight on the roads of Silicon Valley and Austin, the software company has just announced the third city where its self-driving cars will be tested in the real world.

So far, Google has kept its autonomous cars in Mountain View, California and Austin, Texas.

So far, Google has kept its autonomous cars in Mountain View, California and Austin, Texas.

The winning location? Kirkland, Washington. While it may not be the first city that comes to mind when you think of autonomous cars, Google says that Kirkland gives its fleet of cars a brand new set of challenges to overcome, ranging from new driving environments, traffic patterns, driver behavior and of course, the weather.

Because as anyone knows who lives there, the Pacific Northwest gets a lot of rain. Far more than San Francisco and Austin combined, for that matter. Although Google has some experience of driving in inclement weather in both of these cities, the wet winters afforded by Kirkland should help Google improve its wet driving algorithms, while the hills in and around the city should make it possible to test Google’s various autonomous driving systems at a variety of different altitudes.

Of course, there are other reasons why Google has picked Kirkland as its new autonomous vehicle test city. For a start, there’s already a Google office in downtown Kirkland, making it easy for Google’s Self Driving car program to set up shop in the area. Another Google office — located on the other side of Lake Washington in Fremont Washington — could even make it possible for Google to carry out short hops from one side of the lake to the other.

There’s also the fact that Kirkland has a healthy number of other tech companies in its vicinity, including of course Microsoft’s main Redland campus and IBM, making it no stranger to high-tech pilot projects like Google’s self-driving cars.

“Kirkland is a town that prides itself on being open to new technologies that could help improve our daily lives,” Kirkland Mayor Amy Walen said in an official statement accompanying Google’s announcement this morning.  “We are excited about the potential self-driving cars have to reduce accident rates and to provide mobility for people who can’t get around easily.”

Residents will have seen cars like this for the past few weeks, mapping the local roads.

Residents will have seen cars like this for the past few weeks, mapping the local roads.

Google says locals in the Kirkland area will have seen a number of Lexus 450h hybrids driving around its streets for the past few weeks, complete with their autonomous driving sensors whirring away on top of each car. While Google hasn’t officially started the autonomous driving part of its tests, it says those vehicles have been driving around Kirkland streets to gain a high-enough resolution map for its autonomous vehicles to use when navigating around the city.

Initially, Google will likely stay within a fairly small geographic area and says it has no plans to bring its self-driving cars into Seattle (which is located a short drive away from Kirkland on the other side of Lake Washington). But if you live and work in the area, we’d love to know if you spot any of Google’s cars out and about. And if you do, don’t forget to snap a photo and send it in!


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