Students get first look at The Thinkery’s self-driving car exhibit

The Firefly self-driving car exhibit at The Thinkery (KXAN Photo/Julie Karam)
The Firefly self-driving car exhibit at The Thinkery (KXAN Photo/Julie Karam)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Two years ago, Austin became the first city in the world to host a self-driving car ride. Now, a popular museum is giving Austinites a chance to see this high-tech invention up close and personal.

The Thinkery unveiled a new exhibit featuring the Firefly, a self-driving car created by Waymo. It aims to teach people about the benefits these cars can offer, like passenger safety and increased mobility.

Children from Overton Elementary and Metz Elementary schools attended the grand opening of the exhibit — some of the first students to learn how the car works.

The Firefly uses multiple sensors located on top of the car to interpret information, according to Waymo Principal Software Engineer Andrew Chatham.

“Once it knows what’s going on it can obey the rules of the road and drive safely,” Chatham said. “Avoiding pedestrians, making the correct turns, things like that.”

Even though the car is safe, engineers have to tweak the technology for different cities.

“One thing we learned in Austin is that you guys have horizontal traffic lights,” Chatham said. “So that’s a new thing we had to add to our vehicle capabilities when we came here.”

To some, the car is a cool invention. To others, it’s life-changing.

Steve Mahan was the Firefly’s first passenger two years ago. He’s legally blind and explained how the self-driving car could help increase his mobility.

“Getting into that car was a huge step for me personally,” Mahan said. “But it also marked the beginning of a transportation revolution that will bring safety and independence to millions of Americans just like me.”

The city is already working to accommodate these self-driving vehicles, according to City Council Member Ann Kitchen. To do so, Austin recently hired an automated vehicle director.

“We’re a tech city,” Kitchen said. “We’re a future city. So we’re here to work with these guys and figure out how we make this work for everybody in our city.”

In commemoration of these big goals, Mayor Steve Adler issued a proclamation marking Oct. 20 as the Commemoration of the World’s First Driverless Ride in Austin Day.

For more information about where you can see the Firefly click here.

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