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The Future of Google’s self-driving car in Texas

The future of the automobile is here, and states will have to adapt soon. Google showcased a prototype of its self-driving car emblazoned with a “Don’t Mess With Texas” bumper sticker as it hit the streets Austin, Texas on Tuesday, February 19, 2013.

Google employees brought the car to Texas from the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. On Tuesday, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Police Chief Art Acevedo, and TxDOT officials took turns being driven in autopilot mode by the Google car from the Hilton Austin through downtown and on Interstate 35.

“The car has a laser fitted on top that will give the computer a 360 degree view allowing the computer to recognize cars, people and road paint during the day and night. There are cameras behind the windshield to detect traffic lights, turn signals and brake lights. The front radar can measure the distance and speed of surrounding vehicles. All of this technology combined allows the car to see the world in 3-D.” That being said, the car can only drive on pre-mapped roads, which means it has to be driven manually on roads while the computer maps it “which in turn will allow other self-driving cars to drive on the same road within a few days.”[1]

The automobile’s groundbreaking technology and the buzz it created for all 1,300 attendees at a conference put on by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), exposed how Texas law is unprepared for roads filled with vehicles that drive themselves.[2]

Anthony Levandowski, project manager for Google’s self-driving car research, said the company brought their newest Lexus RX450h test model with its autopilot technology to the Texas Transportation Forum to familiarize elected officials and members of the transportation industry with the emerging technology. Levandowski said the company hopes to have the software on the market within five years, and wants the technology to be proven and tested before its release.[3]

Google did not seek permission to drive the vehicle on Texas roads and highways, since neither Austin nor Texas laws appear to address self-driving technology.[4] Although no Texas or federal laws address such technology being used on the roads, Levandowski said that it would and should change.[5] While no states specifically prohibit self-driving cars, California, Nevada and Florida have already passed laws to allow some self-driving cars on the road.[6] Before the Nevada DMV issued its first license for a driverless car to Google last year, it established regulations for the vehicles. Currently, the DMV is only accepting applications for testing autonomous vehicles and they are not available to the general public.[7]

A member of the House Transportation Committee, State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, said he had not considered the issues that may arise from autonomous vehicles but that it is something he finds worth discussing.

The Texas 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.’”[8] Other states, such as Washington are currently facing similar concerns in modifying their transportation codes.[9]

“It’s worth a discussion because government is usually reactive instead of proactive…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 stated. [10]

As self-driving cars become more common, other legal questions that will have to be faced: Who is to be blamed for injuries to a third party in accidents? Who is to be sued in an accident involving a self-driving car, the owner or the manufacturer? What is the expectation of vigilance by the humans in the autonomous vehicle? How are insurance companies going to adapt to this new technology?[11] From the definitions of the words used in a statute to the general intent and “spirit of the law,” changes in law will have to keep up with technological progress on the roads in Texas and the rest of the United States.













About the Author

Enrique Lemus

Enrique Lemus is a Submissions Editor for the Columbia Science and Technology Law Review. He is a 3L at Columbia Law School.
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