Some of the best transportation thinkers in Texas and across the United States are being upstaged this week by a car that drives itself. About 1,400 people are attending the eighth annual Texas Transportation Forum through today in Austin. But while those experts meet in Hilton conference rooms and grapple with tough issues such as how to handle an increase in freight-hauling trucks on the roads, or how to pay for highways under a tightened state budget, it's the Google "self-driving car" parked outside the downtown Austin hotel's entrance that's getting the most hubbub.
"It would probably do a better job driving than we do," quipped Linda Thomas of Longview, who on Monday afternoon took turns shooting snapshots of the Google car with her husband, Charles.
The car is among a fleet of about 10 vehicles developed during the past eight years by researchers at Google and Stanford University in California.
Google representatives said that today they plan to take the car, a Lexus hybrid, for a spin on Austin-area roads, including infamously congested Interstate 35. Lawmakers and selected other state officials will be offered demonstration rides in the car as part of Google's effort to get the public sector more comfortable with an automobile that needs no driver.
Although Texas and most other states don't have laws specifically banning self-driving cars, only three states -- Nevada, California and Florida -- have passed laws specifically allowing them.
Officials said it's too early to say whether Texas lawmakers would be asked to consider such a law during the ongoing legislative session.
Typically, a person sits in the driver's seat, but the car does its own acceleration, braking and steering and can even change lanes. It "sees" the road using laser technology, and has a maximum speed of about 85 mph, although Google officials assured onlookers Monday that the vehicle wouldn't be pushed to its limits during the Texas demos. A member of the Google team will sit in the driver's seat during demonstrations, although that person won't operate the car controls unless there's an emergency, one company official said.
Google product manager Anthony Levandowski is scheduled to take part in a panel discussion today about how transportation is reshaping transportation options.
Glen Hiemstra, a futurist and author of several books on long-term trends, told forum attendees Monday that the self-driving car technology is advancing quickly. Just three or four years ago, he said, Google's small fleet of test cars could only travel a few city blocks. Now they can traverse California highways and even San Francisco's famously curvy and steep Lombard Street.
"I think it's going to be one of the more significant developments in the next 10 to 15 years," he said.
The forum is hosted by the Texas Department of Transportation. Guest speakers include elected officials, industry leaders and cutting-edge scientists and researchers.
On Monday, the impact of increased shipments through the Panama Canal, which is undergoing a $5.2 billion expansion, was a featured topic. Experts disagree whether the expansion will increase container shipments to Texas, with many predicting that Los Angeles ports will still be preferred.
But Silvia Marucci, a senior specialist with the Panama Canal Authority, said the expansion will make it much easier for natural gas companies in Fort Worth's Barnett Shale and many other shale plays to export their products through Texas gulf ports.
"The development of the shale plays in the United States has taken us all by surprise," she said during a panel discussion.
"We expect to see the major trade routes develop from the U.S. Gulf to Asia. The Panama Canal is becoming part of the energy supply chain."
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