Google today announced it has started testing its custom-built self-driving cars in Austin, Texas. The company said it is driving “a few” of the prototype vehicles around town, which are referred to as “the koala cars, panda balls and many other names.”
This is a natural progression for Google’s vehicle project in Austin. It mirrors the company’s rollout in Mountain View, California, where Google first started testing modified Lexus RX450h sport utility vehicles before putting its own custom-built prototypes on the road in June. In July, Google brought its Lexus self-driving cars to Austin, and now it’s expanding the test to its cute custom-built vehicles.
Google first unveiled its custom-built self-driving vehicle in May 2014. The small vehicle did not include a steering wheel, pedals, mirrors, and other components drivers normally use to navigate cars. In December 2014, Google announced its self-driving car had become “fully functional”.
Google’s custom-built cars are designed from the ground up to be fully self-driving, using the same software as the Lexus vehicles that have driven over 1 million miles since the project started. They’re ultimately supposed to work without a steering wheel or pedals, but during testing the company has safety drivers aboard with a removable steering wheel, accelerator pedal, and brake pedal that allow them to take over driving if needed. Furthermore, the prototypes have their speed capped at 25mph (40km/h).
Google doesn’t plan to manufacture these cars itself. It hopes to partner with car companies once it finds that its self-driving technology is ready for prime time. Until then, however, Google wants to have complete control so that it can properly test, tweak, and improve the hardware and software.
Just like in Mountain View, Google is asking Austin residents to join its Paint the Town initiative. Anyone can submit art to be placed on the company’s prototype vehicles. Up to five pieces will be selected to go on the cars, and all selected artists will also get a ride in a self-driving vehicle. The submission deadline is November 1, 2015.