ON THE ROAD: Google has released its pod-like self-driving cars in the neighbourhood surrounding its Mountain View headquarters in California. Image: AP / Tony Avelar
SAN FRANCISCO, California - Google's self-driving cars are cruising the streets near the technology company's Silicon Valley headquarters as an ambitious project to transform the way people travel shifts into its next phase.
The California test marks the first time that the pod-like, two-seat vehicles have been allowed on public roads since Google unveiled its self-driving fleet in 2014.
Its cars had been confined to a private track on a former Air Force base located about 193km's southeast of San Francisco.
PODS CAN REACH 40KM/H
Google announced in May that it would begin testing the curious-looking cars but hadn't specified the timing until Tuesday (June 23) when it disclosed the vehicles are driving up to 40km/h on the roads around its Mountain View office.
VIDEO: Google's autonomous car in action
Google had installed its robotic driving technology in a fleet of Lexus RX450h and Toyota Prius units during the first few years of testing before developing the smaller prototype.
The new models are designed to work without a steering wheel or brake pedal, although the vehicles will be equipped with those features during the initial runs on public roads.
A driver will also ride in the cars to take control in emergencies, just as has been the case with the self-driving Lexus vehicles since 2009.
The debut of the pod-like car will help Google get a better understanding on how well its technology works around other vehicles steered by people.
In 2014 Google told reporters it hoped to have a 100 of the self-driving prototypes in its fleet by now, but the company said it has only built 25 of them so far. All 25 have received permission from California's Department of motor vehicles to drive neighbourhood roads.
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If all goes well, Google hopes to gain regulatory clearance to remove the steering wheel, brake pedal and emergency driver from the prototype. Company executives have expressed hope that self-driving cars using its technology will be joining the flow of daily traffic by the end of this decade.
The earlier models of Google's self-driving cars had been involved in 13 minor crashes through more than 2.8 million kilometres on roads, according to the company. Google blamed the collisions on other vehicles in every instance except one when the company says one of its own employees was steering.