Google's self-driving cars hitting the streets of California

A "safety driver" will be onboard and will use a removable steering wheel to take over if there are any mishaps

A prototype model of Google's self-driving car, ready to hit the road in 2015.

A prototype model of Google's self-driving car, ready to hit the road in 2015.

The first self-driving cars built by Google are heading to public roads for the first time.

A "few" of the prototype vehicles Google has developed will appear on the streets of Mountain View, California, this summer, the company said Friday. Until now, those vehicles have been tested and driven on private property.

"Safety drivers" will go along for the ride, but they'll only take control "if needed," using a removable steering wheel and brake and accelerator pedals, according to the company.

The initial prototype Google showed in May of last year lacked manual controls and only had a power button, but the company promised that later versions would include these components.

The prototype cars have been tested to ensure that their sensors and software work as planned, according to Google, which also released a video of a prototype car navigating a course of orange cones and going over a bumpy track. Google reiterated that the cars' speed will be capped at 25 miles per hour, a point it made last year.

Google has been experimenting with autonomous driving cars for years. The company retrofitted 20 Lexus sport utility vehicles with hardware and software that allows them to operate without a driver. Those vehicles have been tested on public streets with a driver behind the wheel for the past six years, recording 1 million miles of autonomous driving.

During that time, the cars have amassed a safe driving record: they've been involved in 11 accidents, and in every incident the damage was minor, no one was injured and the Google car wasn't at fault, according to the company. The software that powers the Lexus fleet also runs the prototype cars.

Google said that getting the cars on the road will let it gauge people's reactions to them and see how the vehicles handle challenging scenarios, such as heavy traffic and road construction.

Fred O'Connor writes about IT careers and health IT for The IDG News Service. Follow Fred on Twitter at @fredjoconnor. Fred's e-mail address is fred_o'connor@idg.com

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