Google Tests Driverless Cars in Austin

     AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – Google has begun testing a prototype of its self-driving car on the streets of Austin, after preliminary tests in California.
     Google started its self-driving car project in 2009 in Mountain View, Calif., where it tested a Toyota Prius prototype on highways.
     It began testing a Lexus RX450h SUV-style vehicle on California freeways in 2012 before shifting its focus to city streets, which are a more complex challenge for self-driving vehicles.
     Google said this week that it will be testing the Lexus RX450h prototype on Austin’s streets. Each car will have “two trained safety drivers” inside to watch how the vehicle performs and to take over driving if necessary.
     The maximum speed of the prototypes on city streets will be 25 mph. Google says the cars are programmed to drive conservatively. For instance, when a traffic light turns green, the car waits 1.5 seconds before moving.
     The self-driving cars use sensors and software to navigate around other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. The sensors consist of lasers, radars and cameras to detect objects. The software predicts the actions of surrounding objects, and then “chooses a safe speed and trajectory for the car.”
     Google says it will test in a few square miles north and northeast of downtown Austin and will make a detailed map of the streets. The self-driving car will use its sensors and software to “understand exactly where it is in the world.” Information such as lane markers, traffic signals, curb heights and “keep clear” zones will be mapped.
     The self-driving vehicle will be tested in other parts of Austin if the initial testing goes well.
     “Austin’s streets will give our self-driving car some new learning experiences so we can continue to refine our software and understand how different communities perceive it,” said Jennifer Haroon, head of business operations for the Google self-driving car project.
     “Austin has always been extremely welcoming to Google and to innovation of all kinds, and we know we can count on Austinites for some great feedback,” Haroon said.
     Austin’s unofficial slogan is “Keep Austin Weird.”
     Austin and its Police Department both support 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 Austin Mayor Steve Adler.
     Police Chief Art Acevedo added: “Keeping Austin’s roads safe is one of our highest priorities, so we look forward to seeing how self-driving car technology might someday improve traffic safety. Technology that never gets distracted or tired or irritable behind the wheel could make a real difference.”
     The Texas Department of Transportation also supports the project. Executive Director Joe Weber said: “As TXDOT focuses its efforts on the reduction of congestion and highway safety … (t)he successful integration of driverless trucks and cars on to our current and future transportation network could be a key factor toward achieving safe and reliable transportation.” While driverless vehicles are expected to improve safety, the technology would have a major impact on the insurance industry.
     A June survey of U.S. insurance executives by KPMG found that most insurers are unprepared for autonomous vehicles. The survey, “Automobile Insurance in the Era of Autonomous Vehicles,” said that “disruption to insurance carriers will be profound – with a select set of winners and a broader swath of potential losers.”
     Most insurance executives surveyed by KPMG agreed that major changes will be necessary, but believe the transformation will come far in the future.
     KPMG disagrees. It says conversion to self-driving vehicles will happen sooner than most expect and will change the “amount, type, and purchase of automobile insurance.”
     KPMG said increased safety of these vehicles will have the “most profound impact on auto insurers over the long term” because accident frequency could drop by as much as 80 percent, based on its models.
     Fewer accidents would be the “underlying force behind industry trends such as reduced auto insurance market size, consolidation in the personal lines space, and dramatic operational changes within carriers,” KPMG said.
     KPMG speculates that cost per accident may increase with autonomous vehicles since they might have more expensive technology.
     A crash statistics report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 94 percent of U.S. crashes from 2005 to 2007 were linked to driver error.
     Google said that in addition to increasing safety, it hopes its self-driving cars will “transform mobility for millions of people, reclaiming the billions of hours wasted in traffic.”
     Google claims: You could take a trip downtown at lunchtime without a 20-minute buffer to find parking. Seniors could keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys. And drunk and distracted driving? History.

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