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It’s 8pm in downtown Austin and the electric cars are silently pulling out of the parking lot one by one, but no one is behind the wheel of any of them. The cruise depot is full of people preparing the cars for another night of road testing.
There are about 125 autonomous vehicles, or AVs, operating in Austin, according to a memo from the city’s Department of Transportation and Public Works.
It is not clear how many of them work across the country. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, numerous companies are testing and operating driverless vehicles “as passenger, cargo and personal delivery devices” across the state. The list includes Kodiak, Aurora, Waabi, Torc, Plus.AI, Gatik, Cruise, Volkswagen, Waymo, Starship, Kiwibot, Coco, Refraction.AI, Nuro and Clevon.
Here’s what you need to know about driverless vehicles in Texas.
When did driverless vehicles become legal in Texas?
Senate Bill 2205, which went into effect in September 2017, sets the ground rules for regulating AVs in the state.
State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said that about six years ago, “almost every automaker you can imagine (came in) saying we need legislation because they want to are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the state of Texas related to autonomous vehicles.
After discussions with the Texas Department of Transportation, Texas Department of Public Safety, Department of Motor Vehicles, automakers and insurance companies, Nichols said he worked with Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who sponsored SB 2205.
“When we saw the boom in AV technology on the horizon,” Hancock said, “we began a series of stakeholder meetings to develop legislation to prevent government from impeding transportation innovation while providing a regulatory framework with public safety at the core him.”
The bill includes a key provision aimed at boosting industry and accelerating technology development in Texas: it prohibits cities from interfering.
“Simply put, cities in Texas cannot regulate autonomous vehicles,” Richard Mendoza, interim director of Austin’s Department of Transportation and Public Works, wrote in the Sept. 1 memo.
Colin Moffett, senior transportation planner at the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said if each city creates different regulations, the industry could face serious obstacles.
“So the fact that the state is providing a consistent policy in the state of Texas, I think is definitely favorable and accelerating the development of this technology,” Moffett said.
Do AVs need to be licensed in Texas?
yes By law, autonomous vehicles must be inspected and licensed, but the procedures may differ from those for regular cars.
According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, “if a vehicle is truly automated, a licensed human operator is not required to be in the vehicle and the vehicle itself is considered licensed to drive. In such a situation, the owner of the vehicle is considered the operator for the purposes of assessing compliance with road traffic laws.’
But a brief released by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in 2017 noted that under state law governing AVs, “there are no licensing or registration requirements to verify automated driving system capabilities.”
How do driverless vehicles work?
An AV is equipped with sensors – cameras, radar and lidar (light detection and ranging) – that provide a complete picture of the world around it. It also uses GPS to track its location. Data from these sensors feed the car’s AI brain in real time, allowing it to make decisions such as choosing a route, identifying traffic lights, traffic signals and objects.
What is it like to drive in an AV?
A Texas Tribune reporter and photographer requested a ride through the Cruise mobile app and entered “Cookie” — the name of the car that picked us up.
Painted in orange and white, the sedan had room for five people in the back. There was a roof mounted structure for all the cameras and sensors.
Cruise was founded in 2013 in San Francisco, where it offers a driverless ride service through a mobile app. The company also provides self-driving services in Austin between 8:00 PM and 6:00 AM in downtown, Central and East Austin.
“Welcome,” said a pre-recorded female voice as we entered, then asked us to fasten our seat belts. The recording continues: “Let’s go on a cruise! For safety, we record video but not audio.” The interior looked like a normal car, except for a clear plastic partition that separated us from the front of the car.
Screens mounted on the backs of the front seats displayed a digital map of the route Cookie would follow to our destination and allowed us to select up to eight different radio stations. The steering wheel spun on its own as the car moved through downtown Austin traffic. The AV often drove slower than the vehicles around us, but at times turned very quickly.
At one point, the car appeared to detect a non-existent collision. A signal appeared on the screens hanging from the front seats, the car stopped for a moment, then we heard a human voice over a loudspeaker asking if everything was okay.
Have AVs been involved in accidents?
“On September 18, between 11:19 p.m. and midnight, the occupant’s car was struck by an autonomous (driverless) cruise vehicle traveling in the 3rd lane of the northbound curb while merging in front of him … the vehicle left the scene of the incident was a non-stop accident,” according to a September crash report obtained by the Austin Department of Transportation and Public Works.
In another report from Sept. 14, a driver who witnessed a near miss involving an AV reported to the department that he and his wife were pulled over at the intersection of E. 11th St. and Interstate 35 as a large group of emergency vehicles raced past them.
“Vehicular traffic yielded to the emergency vehicles until the light turned green for eastbound/westbound traffic and we observed two cruising AVs stop directly in front of the approaching emergency vehicles,” the report said. “The State Trooper SUVs were easily going 60-70 mph and they had to [brake] and avoid the Cruise AV as they pass through the intersection. This is absurd and unacceptable.”
Another report states that the Cruise AV crashed into a brick wall on West Avenue in Austin on August 23, and because it had no steering wheel, there was no way for emergency personnel to quickly move it. A tow truck was called.
Those complaints are among 33 that the Austin Department of Transportation and Public Works received this year from July 8 to Sept. 25. The Texas Department of Transportation said it does not necessarily track AV incidents statewide.
Cruise said its cars have traveled more than 4 million miles without a driver without life-threatening injuries or deaths. When compared to human drivers in a comparable driving environment, Cruise AVs were involved in 65 percent fewer collisions overall, a company spokesperson said.
At the national level, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration collects data on crashes involving vehicles using automated driving systems.
Between July 2021 and August 15 of this year, NHTSA documented 382 crashes involving autonomous vehicles. California leads the nation with 66% of reported accidents, followed by Arizona at 15%, Texas at 6% and Florida at 4%.
In approximately 85% of accidents, no injuries were reported, and only one serious injury requiring hospitalization or emergency treatment was reported during the two-year period.
In recent months, people have posted photos and videos on social media of Cruise AVs stopped on Austin streets, blocking traffic. In some cases, police officers responded to direct traffic around the vehicles while company employees arrived to move the stalled vehicles.
Who is responsible for an AV accident?
The Texas Transportation Code states that the owner “of the automated driving system shall be considered the operator of the automated motor vehicle solely for the purpose of evaluating compliance with applicable traffic or motor vehicle laws, regardless of whether the person is physically present in the vehicle while the vehicle tool works.”
It is unclear if any owner of an automated driving system operating in Texas has been fined for any incident. State agencies contacted for this story and the Austin Department of Public Works and Transportation said they did not have information on fines or referred the Tribune to another agency.
Will driverless vehicles compete with human drivers?
Moffett believes that in the next few years, driverless vehicles will be used to provide services such as transporting people with disabilities and offering transportation and delivery services in sparsely populated areas.
“I really can’t say how it will affect human drivers in the long term,” he said. “I think it’s too early to tell.”
Nichols, the state senator, said, “People shouldn’t be afraid of automation because it increases productivity. Every time we enter a new area, there is always anxiety. I have my concerns. But we have to solve this.”
Disclosure: The Texas A&M Transportation Institute is a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in Tribune journalism. Find a full list of them here.