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So What's the Future of Regulating Autonomous Vehicles in Austin?

Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT
A shot of one of Google's driverless car prototypes at the Google Fiber Space in Austin on August 29, 2015.

The president of General Motors now says plans with Lyft to bring a fleet of self-driving cars to Austin were only hypothetical. But, what kind of regulations do self-driving cars face in Texas?

Google already has its own self-driving cars on Austin’s streets, but, after multiple attempts at the state level, regulations for autonomous vehicles in Texas is likely to first materialize on the city level.

At the state level, State Sen. Rodney Ellis tried to pass a bill regulating autonomous vehicles last legislative session. His bill, Senate Bill 1167, sought to create a framework for driverless car companies in Texas, allowing driverless cars to operate on roadways as long as a licensed Texas driver (or stat-certified autonomous vehicle operator) was in the car and companies registered with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The bill from the Houston Democrat was one of a handful that would have regulated self-driving cars but, as in previous sessions, none of them passed. So the state currently has no laws on the books regarding driverless cars, but what about the City of Austin?

Chris Urmson of Google, Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Ann Kitchen at a Google press conference in August of last year.

“Not yet,” says Council Member Ann Kitchen. “What we are doing is planning for it.”

Kitchen says city officials don’t yet have any concrete resolutions to vote on, but they’ve been thinking about how the city would change if driverless cars became the norm.

“There’s a lot of implications to how we design our streets, how we design parking,” she says. “So there’s a lot of infrastructure issues around self-driving cars.”

She says one idea is using self-driving cars to bolster the city’s public transit system – if you get off at your bus stop, but still have a ways to go, a driverless car could be idling there to take you home.

The City of Austin officially welcomed its first self-driving car from Google this past July, and now there are at least five of them traversing Austin roads as Google continues to test them out.

Yesterday, word of a potential partnership between General Motors and Lyft to bring a fleet of self-driving cars to Austin from GM President Mike Ammann turned out to be premature. The company said the executive was using Austin as a hypothetical during a Mashable interview.

Hypothetical or not, Mayor Steve Adler says he supports the idea of a fleet of autonomous vehicles and even buses.

“I’m open to Austin helping to provide a home for the development of those technologies and I think we have opportunities to be able to do that,” Adler told KUT’s Jimmy Maas yesterday. “We worked out kind of a protocol with Google – with our police chief and our city manager. I’m not aware of those same protocol conversations having happened, as yet, with GM and Lyft, but I would certainly be anxious to participate in that.”

You can listen to the full conversation below:

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