You may notice a peculiar-looking Lexus SUV driving in the Seattle region — one that is laden with cameras, sensors, and perhaps more importantly, is not controlled by a human driver.
Google announced today that it is launching its Self-Driving Car testing program in Kirkland, Wash. this month. The company will start with one white Lexus RX450h SUV that will roam around Kirkland, a city just east of Seattle where Google opened an office 11 years ago and now employs more than a thousand people.
Google started test-driving autonomous vehicles on public roads at its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. six years ago and this past summer expanded the program to Austin, Texas. It picked Kirkland as another test city because of its variable temperature climate, rolling hills with varying angles and elevations, and seasonal rain that will help the vehicle with wet weather practice.
“Testing in new cities enables our engineers to further refine our software and adapt to these different environments,” the company said in a press release.
Google employees have driven the Lexus SUV out on Kirkland’s roads for the past few weeks, collecting key data on the location of lane markers, traffic signals, curb heights, and more that will help the vehicle drive on its own. Now, the car is ready to drive itself, though there will be a Google employee on board who can take over if needed.
“We have strong roots in Kirkland having established an office here a decade ago,” Jennifer Haroon, head of business operations for the Google self-driving car project, said in a statement. “Kirkland has always been welcoming to Google and expanding our testing program here will give our self-driving cars some new learning experiences and let us hear from different communities as we develop this technology.”
While are still years away from the public being able to purchase their own self-driving car, Google has made serious progress over the past seven years. The company has tested more than 1.4 million miles of autonomous driving since 2009 and its sensors can now detect hundreds of distinct objects simultaneously in a small area, like moving pedestrians, buses, cyclists, or a stop sign held up by a crossing guard.
In its self-driving car report for January, Google also said that its vehicles now drive a simulated 3 million miles each day. The company, which has plans to expand its program to three other cities, noted that it has 22 Lexus SUVs self-driving on public streets — 15 in Mountain View and seven in Austin — along with 33 of its egg-shaped protoype cars (26 in Mountain View and seven in Austin).
“Washington State is a place that embraces innovation and the early adoption of technology,” Governor Jay Inslee said in a statement. “I was pleased to meet with Google executives recently, and I’m glad they chose Washington for this exciting new program. We’re looking forward to seeing the cars on the road and understanding more about how self-driving cars might someday improve safety and provide traffic relief.”
Google, which also has offices in Bothell and Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, has been involved with the Kirkland community over the past several years where it recently opened a new 180,000 square-foot building. This past August, the company paid $3 million to transform an abandoned rail corridor into a new outdoor recreational space for its employees and the public that includes a basketball court, a sand volleyball court, a Crossfit/TRX fitness area, and a zip line. A few months prior, it donated $200,000 to the City of Kirkland to install a free public WiFi network.
“Kirkland is a town that prides itself on being open to new technologies that could help improve our daily lives,” Kirkland Mayor Amy Walen said in a statement. “We are excited about the potential self-driving cars have to reduce accident rates and to provide mobility for people who can’t get around easily.”
Google is now part of a parent company called Alphabet, which crushed analyst expectations in its earnings report on Monday, valuing the company higher than Apple for the first time in six years. The self-driving car project is now placed into a separate Alphabet category from Google’s main business called “Other Bets” — which includes other risky projects like Google X, Calico, and Life Sciences — that posted a $3.6 billion operating loss in 2015 on revenue of $448 million, up from $1.9 billion from 2014.