Why Driverless Cars Could Be Travelling Under the Radar in Texas
By Ben Wear
The fatal collision last weekend of a self-driving car owned by Uber and a woman crossing a Tempe, Ariz., street raised enough questions that the ride-hailing giant days later suspended such on-road testing of the vehicles.
Toyota, another of several major automotive and tech companies working on driverless vehicle ventures, likewise put its public street testing on hold, if only for a few days.
But finding the answer to another basic question -- whether any such testing currently is going on in Texas -- remains elusive. That is due largely to a bill passed by the Legislature last year and signed into law in June by Gov. Greg Abbott. Senate Bill 2205 by Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, does not require companies to tell the state of Texas or local governments when they are putting vehicles on streets or highways with no human in control.
That was not originally the case, however.
When Hancock filed SB 2205 on March 10, 2017, the first version said no vehicle could drive with the "automated driving system" activated unless three state agencies were informed in advance of when such testing would begin and "the general geographic location" where such research would occur. But when the legislation came before the Senate Transportation Committee for its first hearing April 19, with a fully rewritten bill substituted for the earlier version, the testing notification requirement had disappeared.
It's not clear why the provision was eliminated, although senators at that hearing and Hancock said that interested parties had been working on the bill in those intervening five-plus weeks.
"This framework legislation was developed and refined through a series of stakeholder meetings that brought industry and public safety experts to the table," Hancock said in a statement emailed to the American-Statesman this week. Neither the senator or his staff would consent to an interview on the subject. Nor would Hancock's staff provide a list of people or companies involved in those meetings to sculpt SB 2205.
The law, echoing provisions in another bill important to Uber that passed during the 2017 legislative session, prohibits local governments from regulating self-driving vehicles in any fashion. That responsibility falls exclusively to the state.
But the four-page bill, while it makes one reference to "the department" -- specifically, the Texas Department of Public Safety, according to Texas A&M Transportation Institute researchers -- does not allow the department to make rules related to the new law. And the law does not provide any penalties for a company or vehicle owner failing to comply with its requirements.
The bill, lightly covered in the media during the session, stands as the first, and at this point only, regulation in Texas of self-driving cars. And it is among the most permissive of laws in the 21 states (and the District of Columbia) that allow self-driving cars on their roads in some fashion.
Fourteen of those states allow self-driving vehicles to operate only under pilot or testing ventures, according to a November 2017 report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Only Texas, six other states and Washington, D.C., allow "full operation," the report said. And the 2017 Texas law contains few requirements for autonomous vehicle operations, instead deferring mostly to "applicable federal law and federal motor vehicle safety standards."
But the driverless vehicles, A&M researchers said in their analysis, "present a number of new legal and procedural questions still not covered by current law including questions of governance, data ownership, protection of data concerning individual privacy, and the ability of (self-driving vehicles) to comply with human-centric rules of the road."
But what sort of on-road, self-driving operations are going on in Texas?
The Austin Transportation Department had been heavily involved in 2015 when what were then called Google self-driving cars (that part of Alphabet Inc.'s operation is now called Waymo) began to ply Mueller neighborhood streets and other Austin roads with no human drivers in charge. But city department officials said this week the new state law prevents them from knowing what company or companies might have the vehicles here.
"We haven't been contacted," said Jason JonMichael, the city's assistant director of smart mobility. "Some of those cars elsewhere are driving interstate miles. Could there be one on I-10 now, or in the near future? Yes."
Likewise, key researchers with the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, professors who are in charge of self-driving testing on off-road "control tracks" at their campuses, said they do not know either.
"I really don't know," said Chris Poe, assistant director for connected and automated vehicle technology at the A&M institute. The city of Arlington, Poe said, has two autonomous vehicles shuttling fans around the parking areas surrounding AT&T Stadium, where the Cowboys football team plays, and Globe Life Park, home to the Texas Rangers baseball team, using concrete pathways. Those slow-speed vehicles, he said, interact with pedestrians and cyclists, but have no drivers.
While multiple companies and academics are working on driverless vehicle technology, the American-Statesman attempted to contact the five largest and most prominent.
Uber representatives said the company, before the pause due to last weekend's fatality, had driverless vehicles on roads in Arizona, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. Toyota has been testing on Michigan and California roads, communications manager Rick Bourgoise said. Ford spokesman Alan Hall said the company's driverless cars are on Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida roads.
General Motors did not return several messages for comment. And Waymo, which has had self-driving taxis operating in a Phoenix suburb since last year after testing driverless vehicles in California and Austin began in 2015, declined to comment.
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