Big Texas welcome for Google self-driving cars

— With Google’s self-driving cars slowed in a gridlock of California regulation, Texas is offering a fast lane.

Officials in Austin have embraced the technology, a welcome so warm that the mayor used talking points written by a Google lobbyist when the tech titan began testing prototypes on their streets over the summer.
That embrace came as state transportation and safety policymakers are struggling with whether they share Google’s vision of — sooner than later — getting the public access to cars that have neither a steering wheel nor pedals.
For now, Google’s test cars have an employee in the driver’s seat, ready to grab the wheel should the onboard sensors and computers get in trouble. Four retrofitted Lexus cars and four bubble-shaped cars Google commissioned are rolling around Austin, the hub of tech innovation in Texas and the first area Google has done extended testing outside its Silicon Valley base.
Four months into Google’s test drives here, Texas transportation officials appear unsure how to oversee their safe operation. Unlike California, where regulators have been drafting regulatory rules to give the public safe access to the cars, Texas has no obvious restrictions on self-driving vehicles.
And Google wants to keep it that way. The tech titan believes vehicles with just a button to start and stop — and no other way for passengers to maneuver them — would be legal without any change to Texas law.
State officials would not comment on their take, but one legal scholar said Google’s read of state law was not farfetched. “A reasonable interpretation is that an autonomous vehicle would be legal” in Texas, said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina.
Officials with Google’s self-driving car project say that while they are frustrated California’s Department of Motor Vehicles is nearly a year late in writing rules for early-adopters in the public to get the technology, the company expanded testing to Austin to challenge the cars in a new environment where drivers and pedestrians are unaccustomed to seeing them.
“Austin has always been enthusiastic about innovation,” said Chris Urmson, who has led Google’s self-driving car project for several years. “The people there have been incredibly welcoming.” >more
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