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New Bill Aims To Get More Driverless Cars On Texas Roads

Lennon Maldonado
Texas Public Radio
A Lincoln MKZ equipped with patented Ranger technology navigates cones at Southwest Research

A Lincoln MKZ glides easily through a tight figure eight of cones on Southwest Research Institute's San Antonio Campus.

Researcher Mark Alban isn't driving, though behind the wheel, as the car completes its route.

"We can pretty much drive anywhere the computer can plot a path" says engineer Kris Kozak. 

Credit Lennon Maldonado
Kris Kozak sets where the car will go on this tablet

Kozak uses a mounted tablet to select where the car should go and  the car accelerates towards the cones once again.

Kozak and Alban created the technology that allows us to move safely without a driver. It's called Ranger. It uses a downward facing camera to fingerprint the road and uses the images to determine where it is. Kozak says Ranger drives more precisely than any other device. He says the car knows where it is within two centimeters.  

The technology can run pre-mapped routes really well, but would need additional technology to help with situational awareness.

A pedestrian walking alongside the campus road causes Mark Alban to take back control of the car.

"We would have passed them, but probably closer than I  was comfortable with," he explained.

Southwest Research doesn't test on public roads, despite Texas not having laws explicitly barring it.

Texas currently has no regulations around testing and operating driverless cars, but on Tuesday state lawmakers sent a bill to Governor Abbott for his signature.

Credit Courtesy Waymo
Waymo has been testing on public roadways in Texas since 2015

If signed, Texas would become the 16th state to adopt such a framework says Ginger Goodin, director of the Transportation Policy Research Center at Texas A&M's Transportation Institute.

"I think what it does is it provides some definitions for these systems," she says.

Goodin says that while Texas doesn't bar driverless cars, there are a number of ambiguities.

For instance, in a car where no one is driving, who is ticketed for an infraction?

Under pending legislation, "so this is just saying that the automated driving system and the owner of that system would be responsible," Goodin explains.

So, present or not, if your name is on the title, you get the ticket.

Goodin calls the Texas bill business friendly and there are less costs, and regulations than other states. Driverless car developers aren't required to get special permits, mark test vehicles, or get insurance beyond what a traditional car requires. 

"We've seen states that through regulatory action have driven innovation out of their state," says State Senator Kelly Hancock who wrote the bill.

What we want to do here is establish a statute that addresses the new technologies, that does not impede or inhibit the innovation," Hancock continues.

We should be concerned about automated driving. We should be terrified about conventional driving. - Bryant Walker Smith

It isn't clear that more regulations mean less interest from developers. California has more regulations and more companies testing cars than Texas. It requires cars be marked, that companies carry additional insurance, that all companies have a state permit, and more. 

Uber moved its self-driving program to Arizona after clashing with California regulators, only to return three months later. More than 20 other companies test in California. 

Despite Tesla's claim of a self-driving car out this year, several companies are aiming for 2020 and beyond for a production model. University of South Carolina Assistant Professor of Law Bryant Walker Smith says there are a lot of miles before companies can claim their automated cars are as safe as conventional ones. 

Credit Courtesy of Waymo
Waymo, owned by Google, has been testing in several cities, including Austin. They recently announced they had completed 3 million miles of driving.

His back-of-the-envelope estimate, "You would have to drive 300 hundred million miles of representative driving without any fatalities. That's a lot of driving"

Regardless of the miles and the obstacles, Walker Smith believes autonomous cars are a good way to address the nearly 100 deaths per day on U.S. roadways from human error

"We should be concerned about automated driving. We should be terrified about conventional driving," he stressed.

So in the near future, under the legislation likely to become law, you could be riding next to a driverless car, and wouldn't know it.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org