An interesting overview of the currently-on-pause driverless taxi service in our town.
The nationwide pause included Houston and Austin. However, no Texas or local entity required Cruise to take its vehicles off the road because they legally could not.
Senate Bill 2205, passed in 2017, allows only the Texas Department of Public Safety to regulate autonomous vehicles, or AVs. It explicitly bars other state agencies and subdivisions of the state from making regulations specific to autonomous vehicles.
That means Houston, one of America’s most automobile-dependent cities, has no means of regulating the rollout of AVs on its streets.
“We know that this is going to be led by industry,” said Jesse Bounds, the mayor’s director of Innovation. “We are going to adapt to whatever private operators do in this case.”
Before Cruise, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County launched its own autonomous vehicles project in 2019 on Texas Southern University’s campus. That was the first phase of a plan to bring driverless service, with future plans that include an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant “Shuttle of the Future.”
While METRO’s plans hit a snag during the pandemic, its board recently modified and approved contracts with autonomous car technology companies to get back on track.
“Should automated vehicles have to adapt to our world? Or should we have to adapt to their world?”
University of South Carolina law professor Bryant Walker Smith, who has worked around AV issues, proposed that question as a key point of policy around autonomous vehicles.
“Like any new technology, automated driving is going to solve some problems and create new problems,” Smith said.
Nuro and Cruise point to traffic safety and reduced emissions as primary motivators for their work. In a city with a high number of traffic deaths like Houston, that proposition was appealing.
The state law played a part, too. In an email, Stevens said SB 2205 “provided a clear regulatory framework” around AVs.
“That leadership signaled the state’s commitment to innovation, like AV goods delivery, and its potential to improve safety on Texas roads and support the state and region’s economic growth,” Stevens wrote.
For Bounds and the city of Houston, autonomous vehicles should fit into Houston rather than the city accommodating AVs. For example, Cruise initially did not want anyone from the city entering their vehicles and switching them into manual mode. After an incident in San Francisco, however, Cruise was willing to change that policy to allow first responders emergency access to move the vehicle, and generally has been receptive to feedback and questions about protocol.
“So, you know, they’ve been good partners in that regard,” [Jesse Bounds, the mayor’s director of Innovation] said.
He is aware the city has limited regulatory power under state law, and would have to work through state and federal channels. Bounds pointed again to San Francisco. In response to incidents involving Cruise vehicles, the city modified its comments to the NHTSA to be more critical of the company.
“We’ve got the infrastructure set up, the policies and procedures set up to where we can, if it becomes a problem, we can quantify it and then work through the appropriate channels to rectify it,” Bounds said.
At the state level, the appropriate channel would be the Texas Department of Public Safety. The agency did not respond to multiple requests for interviews.
See here and here for some background on the pause, and here for more on the first days of Cruise in Houston, including that Montrose incident. The story goes into how HPD is dealing with the likes of Cruise, the current state of that Metro/TSU shuttle that I had totally forgotten about, and more. A lot of things will be back in action once those cars are.