Last October, Austin made history under a shroud of secrecy, it seems.
Today, Google’s parent company Alphabet announced its intention to bring driverless cars to the open market in a new endeavor called Waymo – a project that, according to the company, had its first successful, truly driverless test on Austin’s roads.
The rider, according to Waymo’s announcement, was Californian Steve Mahan who rode in a Google car without a steering wheel or pedals. Mahan has been legally blind since 2004, had never ridden completely alone in a self-driving car.
John Krafcik, a longtime auto executive who will serve as CEO of Waymo, said in a post on Medium that Mahan’s ride – which was from a Northeast Austin park to a doctors office – proves the potential benefit for automated vehicles going forward:
The ability to complete a fully self-driven trip on everyday public roads, with no test driver, was a big milestone for our team and the history of this technology. It was the signal that we could begin to shift our focus from foundational technical work towards launching our own company so we can offer many more rides, in more places, for more people.
Waymo also released a video documenting the first ride.
An accompanying announcement came from Austin City Hall as well, as Mayor Steve Adler paused an Austin City Council work session to confirm from the dais. Adler also took to Twitter to wax poetically on the impact of the automated ride.
Austin is the Kitty Hawk of driverless cars. We should all be proud that Austin is where such a huge leap forward can take place. pic.twitter.com/M33GyxIjKr
— Mayor Adler (@MayorAdler) December 13, 2016
KUT's Audrey McGlinchy spoke with Mahan, who said he was initially accompanied by an engineer from Google in one of the company's autonomous vehicle prototypes. The two then stopped at a designated location and then Mahan took over the vehicle by himself.
He says he wasn't nervous about any potential safety risks. He says he's been associated with the project since 2011 and has gone on plenty of rides, but never alone.
"I have to confess I was rather anxious…anxious in the sense that I was really wanting to be alone in the car…[T]hat’s the ultimate driving experience for a blind person and that is to be by yourself in a vehicle where everything is going just the way it’s supposed to."
The 63-year-old drove for 35 years prior to his blindness Riding in the car made him feel a sense of independence he hadn't felt since then, he says. Mahan says he's excited for others in situations parallel to his will be able to regain that sense of independence.
"It’s very limiting to not have your own automobile, and those limitations are going to be lifted," he said. "And I will be able to recapture both a higher level of independence again, as well as the good feeling that I get from being able to manage my own life and to be a greater benefit to the lives of my friends and family."
You can listen to the full interview with Mahan below.
Since the start of the project under Google’s X lab, self-driving cars have traveled over 2.3 million miles autonomously, according to the project’s latest monthly report. Google’s automated cars have been testing in Austin since July 2015, but Texas has yet to come up with statewide regulation for autonomous vehicles.
While there was legislation proposed last legislative session, it stalled out.
And, while it's likely more and more automated cars will hit the roads going forward, Austinites aren't completely sold on the prospect. A survey released last year from the Texas Transportation Institute of 600 Austinites found a relatively even split between residents who trusted autonomous vehicles on the road and those who didn’t.
Senior Researcher Ginger Goodin told KUT that folks will likely come around to the idea of self-driving cars, and that their prevalence could impact demand for public transportation – but not necessarily the market for automobiles.
“On the 50 percent who said they accepted it, they said ‘I would want to own my own vehicle,’” she said. “So, it could increase the amount of driving on our system, or the amount of use of the system, if people are okay with being in their car for long periods of time.”
However folks feel about the autobots, they may have to get used to the idea sooner than they may expect.
According to Bloomberg, Waymo's already struck a deal with Fiat Chrysler to rollout 100 self-driving, ride-hailing capable Chrysler Pacificas, which could hit the road as soon as the end of next year.
Audrey McGlinchy contributed to this report.