Amid considerable fanfare, Google showcased a prototype of its self-driving car this week in Austin.
Along with wowing 1,300 attendees at a conference put on by the Texas Department of Transportation, the company’s groundbreaking technology also exposed how the state’s laws are unprepared for roads filled with vehicles that drive themselves.
Google did not seek permission from any local or state agencies before driving its experimental vehicle on Texas roads and highways alongside thousands of other vehicles, the company confirmed. Any other company testing self-driving technology in Texas wouldn't need to either. Neither Austin nor Texas laws appear to address self-driving technology.
“I don't think legally there's any issues of a self-driving car or specific ordinance against a self-driving car,” said Leah Fillion, a spokeswoman for Austin’s transportation department. “It's kind of a fuzzy area.”
Anthony Levandowski, project manager for Google’s self-driving car research, said the company brought a Lexus hybrid outfitted with its autopilot technology to the Texas Transportation Forum to get elected officials and members of the transportation industry more familiar with the emerging technology.
During a panel discussion Tuesday, Levandowski said the company hoped to have the software on the market within five years.
“We really want to test it and make sure the technology is proven before it gets rolled out,” Levandowski said.
In advance of the conference, Google employees drove the car to Texas from the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Russ Keane, a Texas-based spokesman for Google, said the employees in charge of getting the car to Austin used the autopilot function during parts of the drive across Texas between the state's border with New Mexico and Austin.
On Tuesday, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Police Chief Art Acevedo and TxDOT officials all took turns being driven by the Google car. A Google employee sat in the driver’s seat, but the car drove itself as it left the Hilton Austin and drove in autopilot mode through downtown and on Interstate 35. Google employees tested the car’s autopilot function on the same route a few days in advance, a company representative said.
Though no Texas or federal laws address such technology being used on the roads, Levandowski said that would and should change.
“We do think it would be great to have the existing transportation code clearly address this technology,” Levandowski said.
The state’s transportation code currently refers only to “a person” operating a vehicle. Levandowski described an updated version as specifying “for a vehicle to operate, it must have a licensed driver inside.”
California, Nevada and Florida have recently passed laws allowing for the testing of self-driving vehicles on its roads. Before the Nevada DMV issued its first license for a driverless car to Google last year, it established regulations for the vehicles, including a requirement that two people must be present — one in the driver’s seat and one in the passenger’s seat — while the vehicle is in use. A state official told the Las Vegas Sun last year that it has received inquiries from other companies developing their own self-driving technologies.
Levandowski predicted regulation issues would not be an impediment to the technology’s adoption.
“I don’t see any regulators that would be against a car that’s safer than what’s on the road today,” he said.
State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said he had not considered the issue of self-driving vehicles but that it's probably something state lawmakers should look at more closely.
“It’s worth a discussion because government is usually reactive instead of proactive,” Pickett said. “The first time [a self-driving car] runs over a fire hydrant or, even worse, a person, there will be a flurry of bills filed.”
Pickett expressed concern that Google did not feel the current state transportation code applied to its vehicle.
“They may not be violating the law, but they may be violating the intent,” Pickett said.