The Wild West of robotaxis: Will Texas become a regulatory haven or chaos unleashed?

All eyes can is in California’s robotaxi market, but Texas is shaping up to be the next hot test of the technology — and the regulatory battles that could follow.

The Lone Star State has been home to autonomous vehicle testing, especially trucks, for years now. However, Texas, a state with little AV regulation, is poised to take a larger share of industry giants and startups alike as regulatory pressure mounts in California.

The stakes are higher than the pile of money Texas stands to gain if more companies set up shop in the state. Texas not only lacks strong AV regulation, but state law expressly prohibits cities from regulating the technology to be tested and deployed on its streets. How robotaxi expands in Texas could inform how other states deal with the pioneering technology.

Governments may fall on the side of increased skepticism or increased opportunism, Bryant Walker Smith, associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina, said in a recent interview.

“On the one hand, you can have state or local officials saying we’re concerned about a company or a technology or an entire industry,” said Smith, who has expertise in automated driving, policy and law, “we have more and more data. points that justify our concern, and we need to restrict what they are doing in our state.”

Or, Texas could produce some politicians or governments who see Cruise’s drama in California as an opportunity.

“They may say, mistakes happen. Human driving is dangerous, and you’ve shown that your system is generally safer than humans, which is why we want you in our state. Don’t worry about all this trouble you face in California. Come here, and you’ll be right with us,” explained Smith.

As the fleet expands and issues inevitably arise, how can Texas navigate the fine line between encouraging innovation and protecting its streets?

The cars cruise in reverse

Cruise, GM’s self-driving car subsidiary, has halted operations nationwide and recalled its vehicles after its operating permits were suspended in California, following an incident that left a pedestrian , who was hit by a car driven by a man, was trapped underneath. and towed by a Cruise robotaxi.

GM poured billions of dollars into Cruise and issued it a $5 billion line of credit. It’s unlikely that GM will completely abandon its efforts despite Cruise’s current problems and significant cash burn; Cruise has spent $8 billion since 2017.

When Cruise operations resume, it may not – or want to – return to California. That leaves a few other markets, including Arizona and Texas. Cruise launched limited commercial service in Austin and Houston, and began testing in Dallas.

Cruise’s main competition, Waymo, is also looking to expand in Austin. The company said it will begin initial operations there in the fall, with public ride-hailing services opening at a later date.

Cruise isn’t the first company to leave California for greener regulatory pastures in Texas. Elon Musk moved Tesla’s headquarters to Austin, Texas after fighting with California officials during the COVID-19 pandemic over the forced closure of the company’s Fremont factory.

Austin complained

Cruise had about 250 cars in Austin and operated on limited routes during the night hours before it stopped driverless operations across its fleet on Oct. 26. Austin collected more than 50 Cruise-related complaints between August and October, many of which mirror those made by their counterparts in San Francisco.

They range from the passionate, like a resident complaining about his once-quiet street now being subjected to countless laps of Cruise, to the all-too-familiar complaint of robotaxis bricking and blocking traffic and the direct hazard report of a pedestrian who was nearly hit while crossing the street.

Austin residents and agencies have expressed concern that expanding the fleet will only add to the problems.

Ride-hailing replay

Austin has been at the same crossroads before.

Uber and Lyft launched in Austin around 2014. Two years later, the city enacted its own ride-hailing laws requiring companies to conduct background checks for drivers. Instead of complying, the two companies left Austin altogether, and then ran to state lawmakers for help.

Before the Texas State Legislature began its 2017 session, Uber and Lyft stepped up lobbying efforts in hopes of wresting power back from cities.

Both companies are coming up with “truckloads of money to buy more favorable regulation” that preempts cities across the state from enacting regulations at the municipal level, according to one familiar with this matter. Lobbying records show that in 2016, Uber and Lyft collectively paid $2.3 million through 40 lobbyists to block cities from regulating their ride-hail businesses, according to the group. citizen. Texans for Public Justice.

Signed by Gov. Greg Abbott the bill for HB 100which gives the state the power to regulate ride-hail companies, if the companies pay an annual fee.

Uber and Lyft, both of which were pursuing robotaxis at the time, also helped successfully persuade lawmakers to pass a similar bill during that legislative session which prohibits cities from regulating autonomous vehicles. The bill outlines minimum safety requirements for AVs to be deployed on public roads. It also sends a signal to companies in California and elsewhere that Texas is open for business.

How to resist the city officials

If not a high-profile incident that caught the attention of the office of Gov. Abbott, it is unlikely that the state will continue to regulate the autonomous car. That leaves cities with little choice.

The next Texas legislative session is scheduled for January 2025. Austin City Council member Zo Qadri, who represents a district that covers most of the area where Cruise operates, told TechCrunch that his office is working to push the conversation up to the state level, but he’ll be surprised if the Republican-controlled legislature makes changes in 2025.

“AV technology is moving faster than some skeptics expect, but the truth is that it’s not ready for prime time, and using public streets as testing grounds to try to get it to the end not so good,” said. Qadri. “It’s really sad to think that while we have tried and true tools and technologies that are working in cities around the world – transit, sidewalks, bike infrastructure, better land use – private companies are burning billions to try the wheel again.”

Texas cities have an ace up their sleeves that California cities don’t: the ability to ruthlessly and discriminately ticket robotaxis.

In California, a person must be in a vehicle to receive a fine. But in Texas, if there is an AV, “the owner of the automated driving system is considered the operator of the automated motor vehicle only for the purpose of assessing compliance with applicable traffic or motor vehicle laws…the automated driving system is considered licensed to operate the vehicle.”

That means Cruise – or Waymo or any other robotaxi company – is responsible for any traffic violations, crashes or general misbehavior of its vehicles.

“There could be a bunch of local police following vehicles around, ticketing them for reckless driving, maintenance violations,” Smith said. “The traffic code is vague and full of opportunities for selective enforcement.”

In Texas, if a driver accumulates too many points on their driving record within a certain time frame, their license can be suspended. The Texas Department of Public Safety may be obligated to issue a similar suspension against robotaxis if they create too much trouble on public roads in cities.

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