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December 13, 2016

On the ground in Austin

  • , life at waymo

April 2016

From residents to city leaders, tech-savvy Austinites have been supportive and curious about self-driving technology. Our test drivers are often the public face of our testing program and this month, we ask one of our first local test drivers in the city, Amanda, about her experience driving in Austin.

How did you become a test driver?

I live near the Mueller area of Austin and I kept seeing self-driving cars drive around the neighborhood for several months. I was excited about the project and read the monthly reports posted on the project website. I decided to leave feedback on the website and ask if there were volunteer opportunities available here in Austin. A Google representative responded, thanked me for my feedback, and mentioned that there were open positions for test drivers. And now here I am!

What experience did you have before joining the project?
The job of a test driver is so new that it’s not a matter of having prior experience. Before joining the project I worked as a research associate at a biotech company, and a lot of the other test drivers have diverse backgrounds, too. One worked in solar panel production, another was an orbital welder, another was an English language teacher and we even have a former water ski instructor on the team. Before driving, we’re given extensive training to understand how the technology works, how to operate the car safely, and how to give feedback on the car’s performance. We also had in-car instruction on a private test track where we learned to deal with extreme or complicated driving situations, as well as the practical aspects of handling a self-driving car (such as how to take back manual control of a car that’s driving autonomously).

What’s your favorite part of being a test driver?

Knowing that my contribution to the project can help transform mobility and make our roads safer. This has a personal element: in high school, I was involved in a serious car accident when the teenage driver of the car I was in ran a stop sign and t-boned a truck at 80mph. The crash broke my L5 vertebrae and I spent four months in bed and even longer in physical therapy. I consider myself lucky to not be paralyzed. From this, I believe a self-driving car that follows the rules of the road has a huge potential to reduce accidents.

What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced on Austin’s roads?

We did part of our training driving around Mountain View, CA, so I was able to pick up the subtle differences driving in Austin. For one, there’s the physical environment: Austin’s traffic lights are horizontal, and vertical in California. But there’s also subtle driving behaviors to be aware of, like how our cars interact with cyclists differently in Austin. Specifically, when we make a right turn, we avoid moving into the bike lane (in Mountain View, on the other hand, you’re supposed to move into the bike lane when turning). I’ve also encountered a lot more large bushes and low-hanging trees in Austin. That may not seem like a big deal, but our cars used to sometimes come to a full stop when faced with protruding vegetation or overhanging trees. Now our cars can recognize trees and bushes, and nudge around them appropriately.

How has the community responded to self-driving cars?

People have been really supportive, curious and eager to try self-driving cars themselves. We receive a lot of love from the community. Recently while riding in Mueller, a car pulled up next to us and expressed their excitement with a “You guys are the future, baby!!” The positive feedback is always great to hear, and we pay attention to all kinds of feedback so we can get better every day.

As we start test driving in Phoenix, we’ll be hiring drivers there, too. Anyone interested can check out our website, this Backchannel story, and theapplication for our test driver program.