Is Google's self-driving car legal in Texas?

by Saul7034 - 2/22/13 6:10 PM

AUSTIN — 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 ebook converter 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.