Published on November 16, 2023, 11:33 pm

Texas Emerges as a Hotbed for Generative AI and Regulatory Battles

While all eyes have been on the California robotaxi market, Texas is emerging as the next big testbed for autonomous vehicle (AV) technology. With minimal AV regulation in place, Texas offers an attractive destination for industry giants and startups looking to expand their operations. The outcome of how robotaxi expansion plays out in Texas could shape how other states deal with this pioneering technology.

According to Bryant Walker Smith, an associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina specializing in automated driving, policy, and law, governments can take one of two approaches. They can either express increased skepticism and restrict AV companies’ activities or see the potential opportunity and welcome them with open arms.

Texas’ lack of robust AV regulation is complemented by state law that explicitly prohibits cities from regulating the testing and deployment of the technology on its streets. This unique combination sets the stage for a potentially different approach compared to other states.

Cruise, GM’s self-driving car subsidiary, has already seen regulatory challenges in California. Following an incident where a pedestrian was hit by a human-driven vehicle being tested by Cruise, its permits were temporarily suspended. This has prompted Cruise to explore alternative markets like Texas and Arizona.

Waymo, another major player in the self-driving space, is also eyeing an expansion into Austin. They plan to begin initial operations in the fall with a public ride-hail service to follow later.

However, expanding fleets of robotaxis come with their own set of challenges. In Austin, where Cruise had previously operated driverless vehicles before pausing operations due to complaints, issues such as increased traffic congestion caused by excessive laps around neighborhoods and reports of near-miss incidents involving pedestrians have raised concerns.

Austin has faced similar crossroads before when Uber and Lyft launched their ride-hailing services there in 2014. Two years later, when the city implemented its own ride-hailing regulations, the companies pulled out and sought state legislators’ help. The Texas State Legislature responded by passing a bill that prohibited cities from regulating autonomous vehicles and provided minimum safety requirements for their deployment.

Given Texas’ track record of limited regulation, it is unlikely that the state will pursue comprehensive AV regulation. This leaves cities with few options when it comes to managing the impact of robotaxis on their streets.

One advantage that Texas cities have over their California counterparts is the ability to ticket robotaxis without needing a human present in the vehicle. In Texas, if an AV is engaged, the owner of the automated driving system is considered the operator for assessing compliance with traffic laws. This means that companies like Cruise or Waymo would be responsible for any traffic violations or collisions caused by their vehicles.

Texas also has a system in place to suspend licenses if too many points are accumulated within a certain timeframe. If robotaxis become a nuisance on public roads, they could face similar consequences.

As AV technology advances, striking a balance between encouraging innovation and ensuring public safety will be crucial. Texas’ unique regulatory landscape presents an opportunity for both skepticism and opportunism. How this plays out in practice will not only shape the future of AVs but also influence how other states approach this transformative technology.

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