Google's self-driving cars are taking a summer road trip. The company said Tuesday two of its autonomous vehicles will be tested on roads in Austin, TX, as part of a push to gain experience with the technology in a broader variety of road conditions, traffic patterns, and environments.
This marks the first time Google has tested any of its self-driving vehicles on roads beyond the vicinity of the company's Mountain View, CA home. Google maintains a fleet of roughly two-dozen autonomous cars, and two of its Lexus RX 450h SUVs will handle the Texas testing.
One of the vehicles already started driving Texas roads under autonomous guidance within the past few days, and the second will commence operations later this week, a company spokesperson said. Two safety drivers will be in both cars at all times. In addition to assuming control in an emergency, they'll also provide feedback to engineers on how the car handles certain tasks.
Human drivers have maneuvered the cars around Austin in recent weeks as part of the car's need to gain detailed knowledge of its surroundings, "things like lane markers, traffic signals, curb heights, 'keep clear' zones and other information that helps our car understand exactly where it is in the world," a Google spokesperson said. Over time, the company hopes to extend its testing beyond the northern quadrant of the city.
Unlike California, Michigan, and four other states, Texas has no specific laws that govern the use of autonomous cars on public roads. A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Transportation tells Autoblog that "from a TxDOT perspective, we are always interested in any technology that has the potential to increase roadway safety and relieve traffic congestion."
Google debriefed city and state officials on their plans before testing began, though it was unclear when that meeting took place. The foray into Texas comes at an interesting time for autonomous vehicles in the state. Earlier this year, state Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) sponsored legislation that would have created an autonomous pilot program in the state while simultaneously setting minimum safety requirements. But Google and the Auto Alliance, a trade group for major OEMs, opposed Senate Bill 1167, and the measure stalled.
Ellis says he and his staff are mulling what a similar bill for the next legislative session might look like. "Texas laws are silent on autonomous vehicles, which fuels uncertainty," he said. "Instead of waiting to find answers once these technologies are on our roads, I advocated getting ahead of the curve with an exploratory pilot program. A pilot program would have also given our agencies the flexibility to figure out what is needed for this new technology while also implementing some minimum safety standards."
Though Google didn't comment on its opposition to the bill when asked by The Texas Tribune, the Auto Alliance said it was concerned the bill could inadvertently stifle innovation. "The concern is by putting pen to paper you actually could prematurely limit some of those types of developments," spokesperson Dan Gage told the news outlet. Ellis says his bill would have balanced innovation and public safety.
Google's self-driving fleet recently recorded its 1 millionth mile of autonomous testing since the program began in 2009. In a monthly progress report issued last week, the company said its latest vehicle prototypes have hit the streets in Mountain View. The fleet averages about 10,000 miles of autonomous testing per week, according to the latest report.