Google expands self-driving testing to Texas

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Google Inc. is expanding its autonomous vehicle testing to Austin, Texas — a shift from its testing in Silicon Valley.

The search-engine giant said a self-driving Lexus RX450h SUV is undergoing testing in Austin, and another will arrive later this week.

The company primarily has been testing vehicles since 2009 around Google’s headquarters in Mountain View. The company said it’s now time get experience in places with different driving environments, traffic patterns and road conditions. “We also want to learn how different communities perceive and interact with self-driving vehicles, and that can vary in different parts of the country,” Google said.

Over the last few weeks, Google drivers have been piloting the vehicle around a few square miles north and northeast of downtown Austin and creating a detailed map of the streets along with lane markers, traffic signals, curb heights, “keep clear” zones and other information.

“Over the last few days, our software and sensors have started doing the driving,” the company said. “Note that two trained safety drivers will be in the car to take over driving if needed; they also provide valuable feedback to our engineers about how the car is behaving (e.g., if it could take a corner more smoothly). Over time, if this initial testing goes well, we hope to map.”

The city praised the project.

“Austin is special in part because we welcome new technologies that could help improve our daily lives, and we can easily see the potential self-driving cars have to reduce accident rates and congestion, and to provide mobility for people who can’t get around easily,” said Mayor Steve Adler.

Texas also praised the effort. “The technology supporting the emergence of autonomous vehicles on our roadway system is here. It's mature and ready to be tested,” said Lt. Gen Joe Weber, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation. “

Last month, Google said it had started testing prototype Michigan-built driverless cars on city streets in California.

But the company said that even though the prototypes are meant to be fully autonomous — and not have steering wheels or pedals — the prototypes will have those devices. In order to comply with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rules, they can’t travel above 25 miles per hour.

Google has started disclosing when its vehicles are involved in crashes. On July 1, the company said it was involved in two minor crashes in June.

“In both cases, we were stopped at a stoplight and the light was still red, but these drivers rolled into us somehow. That’s three in a row just like this; we continue to see a clear trend of driver error or inattention, and we think we’re starting to uncover the true accident rate on typical suburban streets,” the company said.

The company argues that national accident stats typically only include police-reported crashes, “yet millions of minor incidents like these are never reported.” Others argue that Google’s rate of crashes exceeds those of other vehicles on the roads.