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GOP lawmaker wants Texas law to catch up to driverless cars

State Rep. Charlie Geren filed a bill this week that aims to overcome the car industry opposition that crushed an autonomous vehicle bill two years ago. But he says there's lots of work left to do on it.

The Alliance for Transportation Innovation in February 2016 offered Texans trips in a driverless shuttle that maneuvered along a pre-programmed route in parking lots near Globe Life Park in Arlington.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

State Rep. Charlie Geren isn’t about to let Texas get left in the dust when driverless vehicles start easing their way into everyday life. Especially since car manufacturers need somewhere to test them and could one day need someplace to mass produce them.

“I don’t want General Motors, or Ford, or Volkswagen, or Uber or anybody going anywhere else because Texas isn’t quite ready for this yet,” Geren told The Texas Tribune late Thursday.

The Fort Worth Republican this week filed House Bill 3475, which seeks to lay the framework for driving autonomous vehicles on Texas roads. Geren’s under no impression that the technology is well tested — or well trusted — enough that Texans are going to be walking into dealerships and buying driverless cars anytime soon. But he wants to get the ball rolling so car companies can expand testing of the technology in the state.

Using or testing driverless cars isn’t explicitly illegal in Texas. State law doesn’t specifically address such technology. Some automakers and early developers of autonomous vehicles prefer the ambiguity and fear explicit regulations could stymie testing the technology in Texas. Others would prefer guidelines before they start using Texas highways as proving grounds.

Geren hopes to come up with legislation that both sides will be happy with. He admitted the bill he authored this week may not do that just yet. But its current version was simply meant to meet Friday’s deadline for filing bills for the legislative session that ends in May.

Among other things, the current version of Geren's bill would require the owner or operator of an autonomous vehicle obtain a surety bond or insurance worth $10 million. The vehicles would have to be able to operate in compliance with existing traffic laws.

The automobiles would also be equipped with devices that could provide data on the vehicle’s automated driving system, speed, direction and location before at the time it’s involved in an accident.

Geren said his bill could change as those in the vehicle industry weigh in on it.

“I’m trying to get everybody in the business together on one bill,” Geren said.

Division among manufacturers, developers

It was industry opposition that stalled a 2015 bill by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, authored in hopes of setting some guidelines for autonomous vehicles in Texas. Among other things, it would have directed the Texas Department of Public Safety to create minimum safety requirements for driverless cars.

Google opposed that bill two years ago but declined to publicly explain why at the time. Months later, the company began using a Lexus RX 450h SUV outfitted with self-driving equipment to test driverless cars in Austin. The tech giant’s autonomous vehicle efforts have since spun off into their own company called Waymo, which opposes Geren's bill.

"Waymo continues to work with legislators who have an interest in the safe development of fully self-driving cars," a company spokeswoman said late Thursday. "We believe this legislation is unnecessary and may inadvertently delay access to technology that will save lives and make transportation safer and easier."

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers also opposed the 2015 legislation out of fear that rules could have unintended consequences that would stymie development of the technology. The group echoed that sentiment on Friday, but did not speak specifically to Geren’s placeholder bill. 

“If a state chooses to take legislative or regulatory action with respect to [autonomous vehicles], it is imperative that such action be focused on removing impediments to the safe testing and deployment of this technology,” said Dan Gage, a spokesman for the Alliance.

Some car manufacturers would prefer more guidelines.

“We think the right path is to come up with legislation that deals with where we are today and for the foreseeable future,” said Harry Lightsey, a public policy executive director for General Motors.

He said that autonomous technology has a long way to go before Americans trust it enough to give up control of the wheel but the landscape is changing so fast that some sort of framework would aid testing. That is key to gaining the kind of safety and performance data that would earn the public’s trust in the technology, Lightsey said. 

“All of us have a lot to learn about full, self-driving cars and their impact on the urban landscape,” Lightsey said.

Controlled experiments beginning already

Niti Ross of Arlington has common reservations about driverless cars becoming the norm on American roadways. She said that for her to feel comfortable giving up control, the vehicle would have to tell the speeds of other vehicles, know when a pedestrian is crossing the street and detect when another car is getting too close.

“Can a driverless vehicle do that?,” she said. “I don't know. If it can’t, I don't think I'd like it.”

Ross and her friend Kelly Sutcliffe took a trip to the Arlington Convention Center last month when he Alliance for Transportation Innovation in February 2016 offered up trips in an autonomous shuttle.

The red, box-shaped vehicle moved along a pre-programmed route through parking lots near Globe Life Park.

“It's a neat concept and it was fun to ride it,” Sutcliffe said.

The women could imagine such a vehicle transporting sports fans from far-flung parking lots to the front door of arenas. Industry experts say such uses are how Americans may first get used to the technology. Similar shuttles are also envisioned as being used in mixed-use developments or on expansive corporate campuses.

The U.S. Department of Transportation earlier this year designated several sites in five Texas metropolitan areas as proving grounds for autonomous vehicles. All of the tests will be done in controlled environments, not in everyday traffic.

“The Texas AV Proving Ground Partnership’s recent federal designation and our member companies’ work in this area in Texas will further assist the industry in expediting these technologies to market and – perhaps more importantly – in building needed consumer acceptance,” said Gage, the industry group spokesman.

Among the test sites are Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, Texas Medical Center, Interstate 30 in North Texas, the Fredericksburg Road and Medical Drive corridor in San Antonio and the Tornillo/Guadalupe Port of Entry in El Paso.

“In most cases, tests will start on university research campuses, on closed courses designed for these purposes,” said Becky Ozuna, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation. “Any testing that will happen on existing Texas roadways will be coordinated with appropriate law enforcement and licensing agencies, and the test will be designed to protect the public.”

Industry says driverless cars are safer

The current version of Geren’s bill explicitly allows driverless cars on highways. It doesn’t yet have any restrictions on using the vehicles in traffic.

Lightsey, the GM executive, lauded the state representative for filing something that could help develop more data about the performance of autonomous vehicles in traffic. Like many, he said driverless cars are safer than human motorists. And in Texas, at least one person has died on a roadway every day for more than 16 years.

“Self-driving vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives on Texas roadways each year,” Lightsey said late Thursday.

Geren said he hopes to get all factions of the automobile industry on the same page and a bill to the governor before the session ends in May.

“My end goal is to make Texas ready for driverless cars,” he said.

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Disclosure: Google and General Motors have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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