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TxDOT Plans to Research Self-Driving Cars and Other Futuristic Tech

The Texas Department of Transportation plans to partner with universities to research futuristic technologies like self-driving cars, hover cars and embedding solar panels in roads.

Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director Phil Wilson gets a ride in a Google self-driving car on Feb. 19, 2013, in front of the Hilton Austin.

The state could fund research into self-driving cars, jet packs and hover cars if a new proposal by the Texas Department of Transportation is funded.

In a presentation Thursday to the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT Deputy Executive Director John Barton said the agency plans to begin working with universities around the state to explore and test “emerging transportation technologies.” He said the initiative would make the state’s transportation system more efficient and better prepared for transformative technologies that are already in development such as Google’s driverless car.

“The disruptive force of the Google car is a dominant issue we have to be aware of,” Barton said.

Along with self-driving cars, Barton also suggested that TxDOT might test out jet packs, hover cars and drones. He also touted the idea of “solar panel roadways,” in which solar panels would be embedded in roads, generating energy and melting snow and ice.

“These are the technologies that we know are real and are coming upon us quickly,” Barton said.

Barton said the project would involve launching “test beds” to try out futuristic concepts and determine how to implement them. It would also use “think tanks” to draw “the brightest minds across the globe” to explore challenges facing the state’s transportation system and to make recommendations to TxDOT and state lawmakers.

TxDOT plans to request $50 million from lawmakers during next year’s legislative session to fund the initiative for two years. The proposal will come on top of the agency’s biennial budget request of $20 billion, which agency officials have said is as much as $5 billion short of what is needed to maintain current congestion around the state as population grows.

“We’re asking them to fund the program for us,” Barton said. “If they choose not to, we may continue to move forward trying to find other funding strategies.”

TxDOT has also been in discussion with officials with Texas A&M and the University of Texas System about participating in the project and helping with the costs. Barton said he expected to be in touch with other universities about ways to participate in the project.

"We think this is a great opportunity," said Tommy Williams, a former state senator who recently resigned to become A&M's vice chancellor for federal and state relations. "The chancellor and our board has a vision that we should have a think tank dedicated to solving the problems the state faces over the next decades. And I think there’s general agreement that transportation issues are at the very top of that list.”

Transportation commissioners praised the proposal, as did TxDOT Executive Director Joe Weber, who said it would help the agency and the Legislature move beyond their focus on roads and bridges.

“It’s not our future but the future of our children and grandchildren, and we need to spend some time and resources on this,” Weber said.

Disclosure: Google and Texas A&M University System are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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