Google’s Prototype Self-Driving Cars to Hit the Roads in Austin

1 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Are Hipster Bikes Confusing Google’s Self-Driving Cars?.

The company has already been testing its retrofitted self-driving Lexus SUVs in Austin for a couple of months. The cyclist wasn’t riding any ordinary bike, but rather a fixed-bike, or “fixies,” a popular choice for young people navigating city streets in style (aka hipsters). These aren’t the retrofitted Lexus SUVs that have been in Austin since July, we’re talking about the tiny, adorable prototypes that Google unveiled back in 2014. The cars have sensory technology which creates a security zone around it and enables the vehicle to see surroundings up to a football field away, Director of the Google Car Project Chris Urmson said. To let the car go first, he did a track stand: a maneuver riders of fixed-gear bikes often do to stand in place without dismounting, which requires turning the front wheel back and forth.

Contrary to some media reports, both types of vehicles will continue to have human test safety drivers aboard, just in case something goes wrong, the company said. “There are a few small differences between Austin and Mountain View in terms of the actual road landscape — for example, Austin has horizontal traffic lights, but Mountain View has vertical ones,” Google spokeswoman Courtney Hohne told NBC News. “For the most part, though, we can focus on learning how neighbors feel about having our Lexus and prototype vehicles in their neighborhoods. It’s particularly useful for us to arrive in a city where self-driving vehicles are completely new to people; in Mountain View, people have been seeing us around for years, so their reactions could be different than someone who’s seeing us for the first time.”

According to Google, the tests are now involving those little tiny two-seat “Google Cars” and this time there are no humans behind the wheel at all. Texas doesn’t have any legislation on the books that allows the testing of autonomous vehicles (Nevada, Florida, California, and Michigan are the only ones that do), but Google worked with the governor, Austin’s mayor and police chief, and the Texas Department of Transportation in order to start testing its self-driving Lexuses there this summer. The fun part of the expansion is that each city has its own unique complications and that means that local press gets to ask funny questions like how the car will hold up against a deer: Whew.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the city is ideal for testing because the people are welcoming and open to innovation, in addition to possibly solving some of the city’s traffic and safety issues. Based on an account published on the ChainReactionCycles forum, a cyclist—riding a fixed-gear bike—reported an odd standoff with a self-driving Lexus.

It apparently detected my presence … and stayed stationary for several seconds. it finally began to proceed, but as it did, I rolled forward an inch while still standing. Despite conflicting reports, a Google representative tells The Verge that there is no timeline right now for removing the obligatory Google test driver from the vehicles. The cyclist stopped, and after a moment, the car began to move again, but then another subtle movement from the cyclist froze it in its tracks. “We repeated this little dance for about two full minutes and the car never made it past the middle of the intersection,” the cyclist wrote. “The two guys inside were laughing and punching stuff into a laptop, I guess trying to modify some code to ‘teach’ the car something about how to deal with the situation.” It’s tempting to interpret all this as a sign of the steep learning curve Google’s cars will encounter as they drive more in the complex conditions of the real world. The prototype cars that will be tested in Austin with test drivers aboard, and the vehicles will even be equipped with removable steering wheels as well as accelerator and brake pedals in the event that something goes awry.

Google’s car arrived first, so the cyclist (who goes by “Oxtox” online) “did a track-stand and waited for [the car] to continue on through.” The standstill technique—in which bicycle riders gently rock forward and backward to maintain balance while stopped—seemed to confuse the vehicle. When Google recently started self-reporting all of its accidents, we found out that — even early on in the life of the program — they have been few and far between.

As of July, the program encountered just 15 “minor” accidents in 1.8 million miles of driving (more than one million of which was autonomous), and none were the fault of the car. To date, Google’s cars have traveled nearly 2 million miles in California and Texas, but have only been involved in 14 minor collisions — all of which were other drivers’ fault. As another Google post detailed, its cars frequently spot people driving on the wrong side of the road, dangerously turning across several lanes of traffic, and proceeding through intersections when there are still cars or cyclists in them. As a Mountain View, California, resident — who frequently interacts with these cars on the roads near Google’s headquarters — wrote in June, “Google cars drive like your grandma — they’re never the first off the line at a stop light, they don’t accelerate quickly, they don’t speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes (cut people off, etc.).” The resident described how the cars wait a few seconds after a pedestrian has completely cleared a crosswalk before beginning to turn through it.

It’s specifically upgraded its software to navigate chaotic city streets, and earlier this year it patented a way for its cars to interpret bikers’ hand signals. Anyone who’s spent much time walking or biking in the US is familiar with the danger human drivers pose when you don’t have the protection of a big metal shell around you. As someone who travels mainly by bike — and has experienced countless uncomfortably close passes and near-misses when drivers fail to see me — the idea of riding next to self-driving cars is way more appealing.

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