Google self-driving cars coming to Phoenix area

Phoenix-area residents might catch a glimpse of Google’s self-driving vehicles being tested on local roadways if they keep an eye out. Just watch for Lexus SUVs with odd-looking equipment attached to the roof that are driving extra courteous.

The Mountain View, Calif., company has brought its self-driving vehicles to the Phoenix area to see how the technology performs amid crippling summer heat and, if researchers are lucky, a giant dust storm or two.

“Also, in some communities, there are golf cart crossings, I understand,” said Jennifer Haroon, head of business operations for the Google Self-Driving Car project.

Google engineers are not content to test the technology on the flattest, least complicated segments of road. They intentionally seek challenges to test the capabilities of self-driving cars.

“Our ultimate goal is to create fully autonomous vehicles that can take anyone from point A to point B at the push of a button,” she said. “Safety is our number one goal and why we are working on self-driving cars.”

Google has been developing self-driving vehicle technology for seven years, and so far has 54 vehicles driving themselves, with Google employees aboard in Mountain View, Austin and Kirkland, Wash., according to a monthly project report. Its fleet includes Lexus RX450h SUVs and Google’s own prototype vehicles.

In the past week, four of the SUVs have been mapping portions of the metro area in preparation to drive autonomously, with test drivers aboard to take control if needed. Haroon said the plan is to begin the autonomous tests in Chandler and expand through the metro area from there.

The Google cars use real-time data collected by lasers, radar and cameras on the vehicle, and compare that with city maps to determine the vehicle’s location more accurately than common GPS, which might show a vehicle several feet from its actual location. The company also generates maps that show permanent features of roadways, such as curb heights, while cameras indicate moving objects such as pedestrians.

The cars are programmed to show a level of caution and courtesy frequently unseen on city streets. For example, they yield the right of way to bicyclists using hand signals, according to Google. And the cars won’t proceed across railroad tracks until the car ahead has cleared the tracks.

Chandler Mayor Jay Tibshraeny said the project lends to his city’s reputation as a technology and innovation hub in the Southwest.

“We are proponents of this technology,” he said. “We think it is a sign of the future.”

He said the city’s first discussions with Google occurred just over two weeks ago, and within 10 days the city was notified the technology company would bring its test to town.

“We are looking to attract new technology and to convert it into jobs,” Tibshraeny said.

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