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Texas Self-Driving Car Bill Stalled By Google, Carmakers

Courtesy: Scott Schrantz
The Texas Tribune

A bill to update Texas law for the age of driverless cars has stalled due to two serious roadblocks: Google and major car manufacturers. Both the technology giant and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group, have come out against a proposal from state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, to create a pilot program aimed at monitoring and encouraging autonomous vehicle testing in Texas. 

Google has previously encouraged the development of similar laws in other states including California and Nevada, yet is refusing to publicly explain why it is opposed to such a measure in Texas.

At last week’s committee hearing on the bill, a Google representative registered as opposed to the measure — but declined to testify as to why. The Texas Tribune got a similar response from Google after repeated requests: “We have no comment to offer on this.” 

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 automobile manufacturers including General Motors and Ford, was more forthcoming. Spokesman Dan Gage said the group was concerned that the bill might create state-specific standards related to safety or manufacturing that could tap the brakes on the development of the technology. 

“We don’t feel that legislation in this area in Texas right now is necessary,” Gage said. “The concern is by putting pen to paper you actually could prematurely limit some of those types of developments.” 

Gage said many of his group’s members are testing autonomous vehicle technology, but he could not say whether any are doing so on Texas roads or highways. Such testing would likely be legal here, as Texas law does not address self-driving vehicles, according to state officials. Google drove its self-driving car on Texas roads during a trip to Austin to promote the technology in 2013. 

Ellis’ bill would direct the Department of Public Safety to create minimum safety requirements for autonomous vehicles. Companies building or working with self-driving cars would have to notify DPS before they could drive them on public roadways. Any such vehicles in use would need a “driver” with an “autonomous motor vehicle operation designation” on his or her driver’s license awarded by DPS. The bill would also allow the Texas Department of Transportation to work with private firms to test autonomous technology for freight transport. 

Ellis said he envisioned his measure as helping to promote Texas as a hub for driverless vehicle research while avoiding future legal battles over driverless vehicles on public roads. He didn’t get an answer on Google’s opposition, either. 

At last week’s Senate hearing, state officials made clear that they are already grappling with how state laws might need to be updated for the technology. State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, asked a DPS official what would happen if a driverless car got into an accident with another vehicle on a highway. 

“One of government’s roles is to preserve and protect,” Hancock said. “Is there a way to protect someone else who is on a state-funded highway if [a driverless] vehicle were to go out of control, currently?” 

Sheri Gipson, a deputy administrator for DPS, told Hancock she wasn’t certain how state law would apply in such a situation. She wasn’t even sure if the state could ticket a car that didn’t have a driver. A pilot program would help the agency better understand what areas lawmakers should address in the future, she said. 

“It will help us get ahead of the game instead of trying to identify what issues may occur after the vehicles are already on the road,” Gipson said. 

But several senators criticized Ellis’ proposal as a solution in search of a problem. “If we had gotten ahead, Sen. Ellis, of the internet, we probably wouldn’t have the internet today,” state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, said.      

State Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, agreed that Ellis’ idea might cause unintended problems. “Clearly this is something unquestionably the Legislature is going to have to address at some point,” Taylor said. “I just wonder if we’re being premature in addressing it now versus when the technology is really here.” 

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, adjourned the hearing without a vote on the bill. Ellis said Tuesday that he does not plan to ask Nichols for a vote on the bill. He described the opposition from Google and the automobile manufacturers as likely insurmountable this session, but predicted both groups will regret that the state didn’t create a clear legal framework for testing the technology in Texas. 

“I’m willing to bet that you’ll have people in the industry coming back to the Legislature saying, ‘We want some clear instructions on what we can and cannot do,’” Ellis said. 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribunehere.