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Lawmakers Hope to Steer Self-Driving Car Bills to Governor's Desk

Three lawmakers have filed bills aimed at encouraging the use of self-driving technology in Texas while allowing for some government oversight.

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As self-driving cars move from futuristic concept to plausible technology, the Texas Legislature is looking to become a magnet for the fast-developing industry.

Three lawmakers have filed bills aimed at encouraging the use of the technology in Texas while allowing for some government oversight.

“It’s the kind of futuristic thinking you easily associate with California, New York,” state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said. “Texas ought to not be behind the curve. We ought to be ahead of the curve.”

Last week, Ellis filed Senate Bill 1167, which would create a pilot program aimed at both monitoring and encouraging autonomous vehicle testing in the state. Under the bill, the Department of Public Safety would 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.

Two years ago, Google brought its self-driving car prototype to the Texas Transportation Forum, an annual conference organized by TxDOT in Austin. Google officials acknowledged at the time that they drove the vehicle on autopilot through other parts of Texas en route to the conference without notifying any state or local authorities. They didn’t have to, because Texas law does not address self-driving technology. Only a handful of states have laws specifically permitting the testing of self-driving vehicles on public roads.

Ellis said the bill is intended to make Texas a national leader in transportation while addressing a wide range of other issues including traffic congestion, public safety and climate change.

“I want to be part of helping put a blueprint in place in Texas that goes beyond my service in the Legislature,” Ellis said.

Along with Ellis’ bill, two House lawmakers have filed legislation dealing with self-driving vehicles. State Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, filed House Bill 933, a measure similar to Ellis’ bill that would also allow DPS to explore using autonomous vehicles for border security. House Bill 3690 from state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, would allow TxDOT to explore using autonomous vehicles for construction and maintenance work.

Aside from bills filed this session to encourage research in self-driving cars, TxDOT is also requesting extra funding to partner with Texas universities and study emerging transportation technology. Last year, the agency had announced plans to request $50 million for the initiative but later reduced that to $20 million.

House budget writers didn’t fund the request but added it to a lengthy legislative wish list.

“This session, members are calling for more funding for roads to address the mobility issues plaguing our state, so that is where the Appropriations Committee prioritized funding for TxDOT,” House Appropriations Chairman John Otto, R-Dayton, said. He added that the full House would have the chance to weigh in on TxDOT’s request when the budget reaches the House floor for debate just before Easter.

The Senate Finance Committee, where the Senate version of the budget is being written, has not made a decision on TxDOT’s $20 million request.

In recent years, self-driving vehicles have drawn the most attention in California, where Google is developing the technology, and Detroit, where the auto industry is conducting research. Yet Texas is also seeing some early work in the area. Both the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University have researched autonomous technology, particularly the area of so-called connected vehicle networks, in which road systems wirelessly transmit information to vehicles.

“You talk to any car company that’s trying to develop automation, they’ll tell you when they encounter an unexpected event, that’s where the challenge is,” said Ed Seymour, the associate director of the Texas Transportation Institute. “They’re developing the tech. We’re looking at how you might use it.”

Kara Kockelman, a UT-Austin engineering professor who is researching how the state highway system could be updated to pave the way for self-driving cars, said a connected vehicle network could let cars know about an accident up ahead.

“You have to let the vehicle do the driving to make good use of that information,” Kockelman said. “There’s a lot of synergies that come from connectivity plus autonomy.”

TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said the agency would find a way to continue exploring self-driving cars regardless of what the Legislature does this session.

“As technology increasingly impacts transportation, we want to be asking the right questions to be prepared for changes in how we move around our state,” Kaufman said.

Disclosure: Google, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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