Google Begins Pilot Tests of Autonomous Vehicles in Austin

The testing could be a sign that Google is ramping up efforts to deliver self-driving cars relatively quickly.

Google self-driving car

Google began pilot tests of its autonomous cars in Austin, Texas, a sign the company may be ramping up efforts to bring the vehicles to the market relatively quickly.

In a brief note on its Self-Driving Car Project page on Google+, the company said it has started testing one of its custom-rigged, self-driving Lexus SUVs in the downtown Austin area. The goal is to test the company's software in as many different driving environments and road conditions as possible, Google noted.

"So we are ready to take on Austin's pedicabs, pickup trucks and everything in between," the Google+ post noted. "Keep it weird for us, Austin, and visit our website to let us know how we are driving."

Google will have safety drivers on board the autonomous Lexus vehicles that it is testing in Austin.

However, in other tests conducted closer to its home base in California, the company has also been seeing how self-driving cars of its own design perform under road conditions.

In May, Google got the go-ahead from the California Department of Transportation to test its prototype autonomous vehicles on public roads in Mountain View. The cars, which Google designed from the ground up, are built purely for autonomous use and operate without a traditional steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedal.

The cars are equipped with a slew of onboard sensors and software that control every aspect of their operation. Each car has space for two people, a limited amount of luggage and a button to start and stop the vehicle. Google has said it will build about 100 of its autonomous vehicles and put them through tests on public roads throughout the country in the next few years.

The pilot tests announced in Austin this week suggest that Google has moved into the next phase of its plans to put self-driving cars on American roads by 2020. The company has claimed that such vehicles will be a lot safer than manually driven cars because of the advanced collision avoidance, braking and other technologies built into them.

According to the company, its self-driving cars have been in just 11 minor collisions over the past six years and 1.7 million miles that Google has tested them. In all instances, the accidents occurred when a safety driver was at the helm and not when the vehicle was in fully autonomous mode, the company claims.

Google also hopes to someday take advantage of autonomous cars to deliver ridesharing services similar to Uber, to people in cities around the world. Earlier this week, Israel's Haaretz reported on Google's apparent plans to start testing a carpooling service for office workers in the country. The service, dubbed RideWith, is expected to become widely available in major cities around the world if the pilot tests are successful.

For the conceivable future, RideWith will likely rely on regular, manually controlled vehicles for the service, but Google has made no secret of its desire to use roving fleets of autonomous vehicles to deliver ridesharing services sometime in future.

Despite its push into the autonomous vehicle space, Google is unlikely to enter the automobile manufacturing business. Instead, the company will most likely simply license its self-driving car technology to a manufacturer.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.