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What Google’s Driverless Car is Doing in Austin

Wells Dunbar, KUT News
Google's driverless car, parked outside of the Hilton Austin.

A Texas Department of Transportation conference wouldn’t normally attract much attention. But invite a robot car to your meeting, and everything changes.

Google and its self-driving car were on hand at the Texas Transportation Forum today. The car – which relies on technology like radar and cameras to pilot itself – was the star of a panel on transportation and technology this morning.

State law would have to change before self-driving cars are legal to use on Texas roads. Google project manager Anthony Levandowski downplayed the legal challenges to the technology. Instead, demonstrating “the reliability and safety of the system” is the biggest challenge Google faces in the adoption of its driverless technology. There’s “a good amount of time,” Levandowski said, “from now until the technology’s ready.”

Other innovations were also on display this morning. A mobile app, Drivewyze, allows motorists to pay tolls remotely and truck drivers to bypass weigh stations. Utah-based WAVE is pioneering the use of wireless power charging – using magnetic pads in roadways and driveways to magnetically transfer electric power to vehicles. Charging allows anywhere from “50 kilowatts up to 200 kilowatts [to transfer] over a 10 inch air gap,” according to WAVE CEO Wes Smith.

Credit Wells Dunbar, KUT News
Google showed a little Texas pride in its Austin trip.

Still, Google drove off with the audience’s attention, even if the tight-lipped tech company remained mum about their Texas plans. The Dallas Morning News confirms rumors the car would be taking an Austin test drive, noting it briefly ferried some Texas Department of Transportation officials through downtown. (Word is Texas Senate president David Dewhurst is next to take a spin.)

“I’ve been in it before … it’s pretty impressive,” said Scott Belcher, President and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. He moderated this morning’s panel. “It’s great that Google’s out there pushing the edge of the envelope.”

“We’ve seen incremental change over the last twenty years and now, it seems, that technology is kind of mature,” Belcher said. “So you’re seeing technology that is disruptive and that’s changing the way that we do business.”

Below, a video demo of Google’s driverless car in action.

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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