Kirkland, Wash., is the third city after Mountain View, Calif., and Austin to lend its roads to Google for autonomous vehicle testing.
(TNS) -- That white Lexus cruising down the road next to you in Kirkland may be driving itself.
Google announced that it will begin testing its self-driving cars in Kirkland on Wednesday — the third city where the autonomous vehicles have hit the road.
The Mountain View, Calif.-based technology giant began developing self-driving cars nearly seven years ago and started by testing them on the roads of Silicon Valley in 2009, adding Austin, Texas, last summer as a second test city.
Kirkland was the natural next place to go, said Jennifer Haroon, head of business operations with Google’s self-driving-car division. It’s a tech-friendly city, it has a temperate climate that will give the cars a chance to test the impact of rain, and the city government has been welcoming. Plus, the company already has a large campus in Kirkland.
At first, the “fleet” will be just one Lexus RX 450h SUV with “Google” emblazoned on the side. It will steer itself around Kirkland’s streets with a Google employee in the car. The vehicle has a steering wheel and can pull over or stop if anything happens.
Haroon said the company has not announced plans to bring additional cars to Washington or to bring its house-built self-driving car, which has an almost circular shape.
The self-driving car in Kirkland looks pretty much like a standard Lexus, save for the black dome attached to the roof, the square sensors on every corner and the big red button on the driver’s console. Oh, and it has a computer in the trunk.
Google uses a system of sensors, lasers and cameras to “see” 360 degrees around the car and as far away as 200 yards.
Google’s ultimate plan is to make driver’s licenses irrelevant. That is, the company wants the cars to be able to take you from one destination to the next without you ever having to touch the steering wheel. In fact, if it were up to the company, the cars probably wouldn’t even have a steering wheel.
The self-driving car actually has been hitting Kirkland’s streets since late last year, with drivers firmly in control of the car.
“We use the Lexus to create a map of the area,” Haroon said.
The sensors and cameras create a detailed map of the downtown streets, a map even more detailed than what you would see using the Google maps app. The car can then know exactly where it is within 10 centimeters, or about 4 inches. That’s important for it to know the lane it’s in and how close curbs and sidewalks are, Haroon said.
In the Lexus, the steering wheel still moves as the car operates itself around the city and a “driver” sits by in case intervention is needed.
Haroon urged people who see the car on the street to go and give the company feedback on how well the technology is driving.
Chris Urmson, the head of the self-driving-car division, repeatedly tells his staff that he never wants his 12-year-old son to have to get a driver’s license. That gives the team four years to get the cars into the hands of consumers, though most analysts think the industry is five or more years away from the market.
Google’s main ambition, Haroon said, is to make traveling by car much safer. Nearly 33,000 people died in the U.S. in car accidents during 2014, and 94 percent of the crashes can be attributed to human error, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Google said its cars will be — and already are — safer. Researchers studying the emerging self-driving space seem to agree.
“If the car is autonomous, the probability of crashing becomes much lower,” said Gary Silberg, KPMG’s U.S. automotive leader. KPMG, a business-consulting company, predicts accidents will be reduced by 80 percent by 2040, largely a result of autonomous cars.
He cautioned that safety will take time to trickle down. The cars will be expensive, especially in their early days, and likely won’t make up the majority of vehicles on the road for a couple of decades.
Google probably will never sell a car to a consumer; the company has said it doesn’t intend to become an automaker. Instead, it likely will partner with other businesses when it comes to making commercial cars.
Or self-driving cars may not be a consumer purchase. David Jumpa, chief revenue officer of Seattle connected-car company Airbiquity, said he thinks Google will partner with companies such as Uber and Lyft to offer fleet services in specific areas it has mapped out.
That could help with traffic congestion, an increasingly problematic issue in the Puget Sound region.
Haroon said the company isn’t sure how the product will eventually get to consumers.
“We could assume how people want to use it,” she said. “But we’d rather hear from them. Do they want to own the cars themselves? Or use them more like a taxi?”
Google is far from the only company developing autonomous vehicles. Tesla has jumped in, and several automakers are working on prototypes.
At the same time, Google has been grappling with the state of California as the government tries to nail down regulations for autonomous cars. The state’s preliminary rules state that cars without steering wheels and brake pedals are banned. Google’s prototype has neither.
“Since technology is still changing, regulating too early could stifle innovation,” Haroon said.
Washington state has no laws about autonomous vehicles, and both Gov. Jay Inslee and Kirkland Mayor Amy Walen welcomed Google’s trials to the state.
Google cars have been involved in a handful of minor accidents, most caused by human error, Reuters reported.
In the meantime, the company is trying to get the car as much experience as possible with unusual situations. Haroon’s favorite came when the car turned a corner into a residential neighborhood in Mountain View and detected a duck running into the road, while a woman in an electric wheelchair pursued it, holding a broom.
The car stopped and waited for the duck and woman to clear the road.
©2016 The Seattle Times Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.