AUSTIN (KXAN) — As autonomous vehicle technology advances, a new company will soon begin piloting its latest prototype here in Austin.
Autonomous vehicle company Waymo will begin testing its fifth generation driver, called the Jaguar I-Pace, throughout central and east Austin. Company officials told KXAN the vehicles are already in the Texas capital awaiting deployment.
Pilot testing locations include downtown, along Rainey Street, within the Market District, near the State Capitol and in the Clarksville, Bouldin Creek and Holly neighborhoods, per a company news release.
Currently, the company operates ride-hailing services in San Francisco and Phoenix. While there aren’t “immediate plans” to launch in Austin, Waymo officials said, “testing in the city will help us improve our underlying technology everywhere we drive.”
Nathaniel Fairfield, distinguished software engineer with Waymo, told KXAN the company selected Austin based on three factors: familiarity with the region, similarities between downtown Austin, San Francisco and Phoenix as well as its varied neighborhood landscape.
“Austin is a very vibrant place with lots of pedestrian traffic, etcetera that shares a lot of similarities with downtown Phoenix and downtown San Franciso, where we can both get the confirmation of the similarities but also call out any nuances or differences,” he said.
“[Austin is] a patchwork of very different phases of development from the very old parts of the city to very new parts of the city,” Fairfield continued. “And so it just has a great coverage of different driving modes.”
Other previous testing sites include Miami, New York City and Bellevue, Washington. Testing cities helps the company improve performance in busier areas, corridors with high pedestrian and cyclist traffic, as well as places with rainy climates.
Waymo is the latest AV company to take to the Lone Star State’s capital. During the 2023 South by Southwest Conference & Festivals last month, General Motors’ Cruise announced it would unveil its “robotaxi” technology in Austin in the coming months.
As hinted at by Fairfield, this isn’t the first time Waymo’s AV technology has made its way into Austin.
In October 2015, Steve Mahan became the first person globally to ride in a fully autonomous vehicle sans driver. He completed the feat in Austin while riding in Waymo’s Firefly prototype.
Fairfield said that moment was a crowning achievement for the company’s AV technology.
“That was one of the major milestones in our progression, of the sort of proving out this technology, and it was really exciting,” he said.
As part of its safety control measures, Fairfield said he and fellow engineers pair millions of miles of guided, real-world testing with features like laser, camera and radar systems as well as audio detection to alert the programming of things like police and emergency vehicle sirens.
“Every time we allow our cars to go out and we push a new version of the system, it’s had several human lifetimes of driving experience and validation to make sure that we really are sure that it performs properly,” he said.
Fairfield has worked in AV technology for about 14 years. Some of the biggest evolutions in the field, he said, include amplifying its 24/7 rideshare services in downtown Phoenix and San Francisco and scaling the technology beyond.
“We really want to base our understanding of the driving problem on a really diverse set of driving contexts, and that actually accelerates our development and accelerates our path forward.”