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Multiple restaurants hit by “bad Google review” scam

This is on Google to fix.

Multiple Houston restaurants are being targeted by a scam involving one-star Google reviews and a demand for digital gift cards to remove the negative post.

The number of restaurants being extorted has grown in the past week to include high-end River Oaks District sister restaurants Ouzo Bay and Loch Bar; Field & Tides and Maison Pucha Bistro in the Heights; and the upscale Bludorn near Montrose. The Chronicle previously reported that Daily Gather, the CityCentre restaurant owned by the hospitality group that owns Dish Society restaurants,  had also been hit up.

The New York Times reported July 11 that restaurants across the country have been targets of the scam involving negative ratings on restaurant Google pages as a bargaining chip to extort digital gift cards.

In all the cases, the scam follows the same pattern where one-star reviews are posted on Google (these reviews appear when you search the restaurant on Google). The restaurant is then contacted by email by a person claiming responsibility for the post along with a request for a $75 Google Play gift card to stop the digital bombing.

The restaurants hit have received the following email:

“Hello. Unfortunately, negative feedback about your establishment has been left by us. And will appear in the future, one review a day. We sincerely apologize for our actions, and would not want to harm your business, but we have no other choice. The fact is that we live in India and see no other way to survive. We are begging you to send us Google Play gift card worth $75.”

The email then directs the restaurant to buy the card from PayPal. “After selling this gift card we can earn approximately $50, which is three weeks of income for one family,” the scammers go on to claim.

[…]

According to The New York Times story, Google is aware of the scam. “A Google Maps spokeswoman said Monday that the platform was investigating the situation and had begun removing reviews that violated its policies” which include that reviews must be based on actual experiences, according to story.

That might be little comfort to restaurants still being scammed.

The Texas Restaurant Association has contacted Google to seek resolution. It also is working with restaurant partners such as Yelp and OpenTable to put together guidance it will share on its website and newsletter for how Texas restaurants should deal with the scam, said Kelsey Erickson Streufert, chief public affairs officer for the restaurant association.

In the meantime, she recommended that restaurants monitor their reviews, especially on Google, and flag those that appear fraudulent. She also said that communicating with the public that the restaurant has been scammed can be effective, especially leveraging the goodwill of the dining public.

Here’s an example of what the exchange looks like, via Field & Tides on Facebook.

Infuriating that Google hasn’t been taking these down, if you ask me. I don’t know what more they need to take action, but I hope they do it quickly. In the meantime, check and see if your favorite places have been hit by this, and give them a proper Google review to balance them out if you can. The Takeout has more.

SCOTUS puts Texas’ stupid social media censorship law back on hold

Good.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked a Texas law that prohibits large social media companies, such as Facebook or Twitter, from banning or removing users’ posts based on political viewpoints.

The justices, in a 5-4 vote, granted NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association’s request to reinstate a block imposed by a federal district judge as the lawsuit makes its way through the courts. The justices who voted to reverse the lower court’s ruling didn’t give a reason for their decision — a standard practice when the court is ruling on emergency applications.

Matt Schruers, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, one of the two groups that sued to block the law on claims that it violates companies’ First Amendment rights, celebrated the court’s decision.

“No online platform, website, or newspaper should be directed by government officials to carry certain speech,” he said in a statement. “This has been a key tenet of our democracy for more than 200 years and the Supreme Court has upheld that.”

[…]

The two industry trade groups that represent companies such as Google and Twitter sued to block the law last fall. In December, a federal district court judge ruled in favor of the groups and prevented the law from going into effect, reasoning that the First Amendment protects a company’s right to moderate content and calling parts of the law “prohibitively vague.”

As a result, Paxton appealed the district judge’s decision to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reinstated the law.

Three conservative justices, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch, said in a dissent that they would have let Texas’ law stand for now. Justice Elena Kagan, a liberal, said she would have also let the order stand but didn’t provide a reason.

Alito wrote in the dissent that it is “not at all obvious how our existing precedents, which predate the age of the internet, should apply to large social media companies.” Still, he wrote, the case is “of great importance” and the Supreme Court would have to review the arguments at some point.

“Social media platforms have transformed the way people communicate with each other and obtain news,” he wrote. “At issue is a ground-breaking Texas law that addresses the power of dominant social media corporations to shape public discussion of the important issues of the day.”

See here for the previous update and here for a copy of the order. With the Florida law being knocked down by the 11th Court of Appeals, there’s a circuit split, which means that Alito is correct and SCOTUS is going to have to deal with this sooner or later. At least it will be on hold until then. The Chron has more.

Florida’s stupid social media censorship law knocked down by appeals court

With an opinion from a Trump judge, no less.

A Florida law intended to punish social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, a federal appeals court ruled Monday, dealing a major victory to companies who had been accused by GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis of discriminating against conservative thought.

A three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously concluded that it was overreach for DeSantis and the Republican-led Florida Legislature to tell the social media companies how to conduct their work under the Constitution’s free speech guarantee.

“Put simply, with minor exceptions, the government can’t tell a private person or entity what to say or how to say it,” said Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, in the opinion. “We hold that it is substantially likely that social media companies — even the biggest ones — are private actors whose rights the First Amendment protects.”

The ruling upholds a similar decision by a Florida federal district judge on the law, which was signed by DeSantis in 2021. It was part of an overall conservative effort to portray social media companies as generally liberal in outlook and hostile to ideas outside of that viewpoint, especially from the political right.

[…]

As enacted, the law would give Florida’s attorney general authority to sue companies under the state’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. It would also allow individual Floridians to sue social media companies for up to $100,000 if they feel they’ve been treated unfairly.

The bill targeted social media platforms that have more than 100 million monthly users, which include online giants as Twitter and Facebook. But lawmakers carved out an exception for the Walt Disney Co. and their apps by including that theme park owners wouldn’t be subject to the law.

The law would require large social media companies to publish standards on how it decides to “censor, deplatform, and shadow ban.”

But the appeals court rejected nearly all of the law’s mandates, save for a few lesser provisions in the law.

“Social media platforms exercise editorial judgment that is inherently expressive. When platforms choose to remove users or posts, deprioritize content in viewers’ feeds or search results, or sanction breaches of their community standards, they engage in First-Amendment-protected activity,” Newsom wrote for the court.

You can see a copy of the ruling here, and contrast it to the wordless garbage the Fifth Circuit spewed out to allow Texas’ law to stand. This means that SCOTUS will have to get involved to resolve the dispute. It’s going to get ugly in here. Reuters, CNET, and Techdirt, which shows the parts of the lower court’s ruling that were upheld and the parts that were vacated, have more.

Texas asks SCOTUS to not block its stupid social media law

As you’d expect.

The Supreme Court should allow a sweeping Texas law to remain in effect that restricts the ability of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to moderate their platforms, according to the state’s attorney general.

In a filing to the Court on Wednesday, Texas argued that its law, HB 20, which prohibits large social media firms from blocking, banning or demoting posts or accounts, does not violate the First Amendment.

It contrasts with claims by opponents, including the tech industry, that the legislation infringes on the constitutional rights of tech platforms to make editorial decisions and to be free from government-compelled speech.

[…]

A group of states led by Florida has also submitted a Court filing defending Texas’s law. The friend-of-the-court brief, which was authored by a dozen states including Alabama, Arizona, Kentucky and South Carolina, among others, reflects how the legal battle over HB 20 has nationwide ramifications.

Justice Samuel Alito is currently considering whether to grant an emergency stay of a lower court decision that had allowed the law to take effect last week. The law is being challenged by advocacy groups representing the tech industry.

[…]

The case has already drawn “friend of the court” briefs from interested third parties including groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, who urged the court to block the law, arguing it will “transform social media platforms into online repositories of vile, graphic, harmful, hateful, and fraudulent content, of no utility to the individuals who currently engage in those communities.”

Also seeking to file a third-party brief was former Rep. Chris Cox, co-author of the tech platform liability shield known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that explicitly permits websites to moderate content and which has become a lightning rod in the wider battle over digital speech.

Social media operators have repeatedly cited Section 230 to successfully nip many suits in the bud concerning user-generated content. But HB 20 conflicts with Section 230 by saying platforms can be sued in Texas for moderating their online communities, raising questions about the future of the federal law that’s been described as “the 26 words that created the internet.”

See here and here for some background. Alito will either issue a decision on his own or refer the matter to the full court. Insert shrug emoji here.

SCOTUS asked to again block that stupid social media censorship law

Please save us from the lawless Fifth Circuit. Having to make such an ask of this SCOTUS sure is a jaw-grinding experience.

Lobbying groups representing Facebook, Twitter, Google and other tech companies filed an emergency request with the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday, seeking to block a Texas law that prohibits large social media platforms from banning users based on their political views.

The Texas law went into effect on Wednesday when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted the state’s request for a stay of a district judge’s injunction blocking the law.

The law forbids social media companies with more than 50 million active users per month from banning members based on their political views and requires them to publicly disclose how they moderate content.

[…]

Internet lobbying groups NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association filed a lawsuit against the measure, and U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin, Texas, issued a preliminary injunction in December.

Pitman had found that the law would harm social media companies’ free speech rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The tech groups, in their emergency request, asked the Supreme Court to “allow the District Court’s careful reasoning to remain in effect while an orderly appellate process plays out.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a more detailed analysis of why the Fifth Circuit’s no-words ruling was so bad. You know how much faith I have in this court to ever do the right thing, but maybe this was a bridge too far. Maybe. Ars Technica and The Verge have more.

That stupid social media censorship law has been unblocked

The Fifth Circuit continues to debase itself.

A federal appeals court on Wednesday reinstated a Republican-backed Texas law that prohibits large social media companies from banning users over their political viewpoints.

The decision hands a win to Republicans who have long criticized social media platforms such as Twitter for what they call anti-conservative bias — disapproval that was amplified when President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for violating the platform’s rules on inciting violence during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

The order did not evaluate the law on its constitutionality but instead allows the law to go back into effect while the case proceeds in district court, according to a statement from one of the plaintiff groups. The ruling came from a three-judge panel on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which is often considered the most conservative appeals court in the country — and was not accompanied by a written opinion explaining the decision at the time of publication.

Two large industry trade groups that represent companies such as Google and Twitter sued to block the law last fall.

In December, a federal district court judge ruled in favor of the groups and blocked the law while the lawsuit continues, reasoning that the First Amendment protects a company’s right to moderate content and called parts of the law “prohibitively vague.” As a result, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the district judge’s decision to the circuit court.

Passed during a special session last year, House Bill 20 also requires social media platforms with more than 50 million monthly users to publicly disclose information about content removal and account suspensions.

“HB 20 is an assault on the First Amendment, and it’s constitutionally rotten from top to bottom,” Chris Marchese, counsel for the NetChoice industry trade group, tweeted after the ruling. “So of course we’re going to appeal today’s unprecedented, unexplained, and unfortunate order by a split 2-1 panel.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ve been beaten down by the constant flow of atrocities from this outlaw court, so I’m going to hand it off to one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys:

Which means we have to hope there are still a few people on that bench who understand what the First Amendment says. I don’t have any faith, but what are you gonna do? Slate and Reform Austin have more.

Why do driverless trucks love I-45?

For a combination of reasons.

Texas, particularly the stretch of highway between Houston and Dallas, has emerged as one of the nation’s main proving grounds for autonomous trucking, with freight trucks driving themselves from pickup destinations to shipping warehouses hundreds of miles away. It’s a part of what transportation experts say will be an automated vehicle revolution, with passenger cars, local delivery vehicles and freight trucks driving themselves around towns and across states.

Since late 2020, 18-wheelers operated by software and hardware created by Aurora have driven tons of freight from the Dallas area to Houston, often without the intervention of a human driver. The company partnered with FedEx in September to affix its hardware to some of the shipping giant’s Paccar trucks for its first real-world test of its autonomous trucking systems.

And in November, Waymo, owned by Google parent Alphabet, announced its trucking division would partner with UPS to begin testing autonomous big rigs along the same stretch of I-45. The company has already tested its technology along most of the journey, but the deal with UPS is its first public partnership with a freight company.

Officials with Aurora and Waymo say the combination of stable weather along the stretch, a relatively flat drive and the amount of freight driven between the two population hubs made the interstate a good choice. Statewide regulations about driverless vehicles also help, said Pablo Abad, a product manager with Waymo.

“Whenever we go to a particular market or think about implementing the Waymo driver, we have to look at the regulations to see how favorably they view autonomous tech,” he said. “Texas has been very helpful on that side — it’s part of the reason why we’re commercializing in Texas.”

The state’s autonomous-friendly business environment is by design, said Kara Kockelman, a professor of transportation engineering at UT Austin. The Texas Legislature passed a law in 2017 allowing autonomous vehicles to drive in the state without a driver present, and that same year, the entire state was designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation as one of 10 proving grounds for autonomous vehicle testing.

“Texas wants to be on the lead on this,” she said. “Texas has a lot of crossroads for a state, with at least five or six major population centers. That’s a great set up for moving freight.”

Whether by accident or design, it’s working. There have been multiple trials of driverless trucks in Texas over the past few years, mostly on I-45. It’s the same combination of moderate distance, flatness, relative emptiness, and big population centers on either end that was attractive for high speed rail, too. There’s some interesting stuff in the story about the different kinds of automated vehicles and how the addition of driverless trucks could be good both for business and for truck drivers, especially in this time of supply chain issues, so go read the rest.

Social media censorship law blocked

For now. As long as the outlaw Fifth Circuit exists, we can’t say more than that.

A federal judge on Wednesday blocked a Texas law that seeks to restrict how social media companies moderate their content and was championed by Republicans who say the platforms are biased against conservatives.

The law, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sept. 9, would ban platforms with more than 50 million monthly users in the U.S. from removing a user over a “viewpoint” and require them to publicly report information about content removal and account suspensions. It was set to take effect Dec. 2.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman wrote that the First Amendment protects social media platforms’ right to moderate content and rejected the defendants’ argument that such companies are “common carriers.” Pitman also ruled that some aspects of the law were “prohibitively vague.”

“This Court is convinced that social media platforms, or at least those covered by [House Bill] 20, curate both users and content to convey a message about the type of community the platform seeks to foster and, as such, exercise editorial discretion over their platform’s content,” Pitman wrote.

[…]

Supporters of the law say it ensures that users’ political views go uncensored. State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park — who authored the bill, known as House Bill 20 — compared tech companies to “common carriers” like phone companies or cable providers, which are barred from customer discrimination.

But a federal judge who blocked a similar Florida law in June said such comparisons aren’t accurate. Thomas Leatherbury, the director of the First Amendment Clinic at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, told The Texas Tribune in September that the Texas law is “clearly unconstitutional,” with the same flaws as the Florida law “and then some.”

By targeting only the largest social media platforms, Leatherbury said the law violates the equal protection clause. The law largely prohibits electronic mail service providers from blocking messages based on their content, which Leatherbury said restricts email services’ First Amendment rights.

See here and here for the background. You can see the court order here, some commentary on it here, and NetChoice’s press release here. As with all things, Texas is sure to go running to the Fifth Circuit to get them to ratify their lawlessness, and the usual bet is that the Fifth Circuit will provide room service for them. Maybe this time it will be different since the law attacks businesses instead of just people, but conservatives have decided those particular businesses are Bad for them, so the usual bet is still probably the correct one. But for now, at least this is one terrible new law that won’t get a chance to be enforced. For now.

Social media censorship lawsuit has its day in court

It’s a very dumb law that will hopefully be stopped before it takes effect tomorrow.

Lawyers for two large tech industry groups appeared Monday in federal court in Austin to argue that Texas’ new social media law — inspired by Republican complaints that conservatives are ill-treated on Twitter, Facebook and other large platforms — should be blocked as unconstitutional.

Known as House Bill 20, the law lets social media users sue if they are blocked or their posts are removed based on the user’s viewpoint. It also gives companies two days to respond to user complaints about content removal and two weeks to handle appeals if users disagree with the action.

But lawyer Scott Keller argued that the law should be blocked from taking effect Thursday because it violates the First Amendment free speech right of social media companies to monitor, screen and delete content published on their platforms.

Instead, Keller said, the law requires platforms to continue publishing posts that violate their terms of service, including those that glorify Nazis or spread medical misinformation.

“This is a striking assertion of government power,” he told U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman during a two-hour in-person hearing Monday in downtown Austin. “The First Amendment protects editorial discretion.”

HB 20 also creates an onerous set of regulations on complaints and appeals that would be impossible to meet, Keller argued, noting that in a three-month period earlier this year, YouTube removed 9.5 million videos and 1.16 billion comments for violating decency and other standards.

But Assistant Attorney General Courtney Corbello argued that the law does not stop social media companies from prohibiting certain types of content.

“HB 20 says continue to have your policies, continue to prohibit the content the way you want to, just don’t discriminate against people,” she said. “HB 20 prohibits viewpoint discrimination. It does not prohibit content moderation.”

Corbello also disputed claims that the law is onerous, noting that Facebook and YouTube already inform users when content is removed and have an appeals process in place to resolve disagreements.

See here for the background. I may have been wrong about the timing of the slapdown on this dumb law, but I don’t think I’m wrong about the outcome. This time I can point to someone with fancy law credentials who also thinks this law is trash and the lawsuit will succeed – see here for the analysis of HB20, and here for his thoughts on the filings. There are other analyses of the law and similar ones in equally ridiculous states like Florida, which you should read, and there’s this resource page from NetChoice, one of the plaintiffs, if you really want to go deep. As I said, this and other laws from the special session go into effect tomorrow, so expect there to be something in short order.

Lawsuit filed over our very dumb new social media “censorship” law

So very dumb.

Texas is being sued over its new law barring social media platforms from banning users over their political views by two trade associations that represent some of the industry’s biggest online companies.

NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which represent Google and Twitter, among other companies in the e-commerce and social media industries, filed a lawsuit Wednesday asking a federal judge to block the law.

Under the law, which was passed by the Legislature as House Bill 20, and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sept. 9, social media platforms with over 50 million monthly users in the U.S. — a threshold that includes Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube — must publicly report details about content removal and account suspensions biannually. The platforms are also required to establish an easily accessible complaint system, where users could flag violations of the law.

Supporters of the bill said it was a necessary step to ensure users’ viewpoints aren’t censored and people who are blocked have a path for recourse.

The state cannot force platforms to host content they wouldn’t otherwise host, the presidents of NetChoice and CCIA said in a Tuesday meeting with reporters. The law threatens the safety of users, creators and businesses that use platforms to reach their audiences, said NetChoice President and CEO Steve DelBianco.

“They can’t be forced to carry content that violates the community standards that they use to curate a community of online content that suits their advertisers and audience,” DelBianco said.

[…]

This lawsuit isn’t the first of its kind for NetChoice and CCIA. In May, the groups sued to block a similar measure in Florida, which became the first state to regulate tech companies’ speech. In June, a federal judge granted the request to block the enforcement of the law.

DelBianco said the First Amendment flaws outlined by the judge in Florida’s case “match pretty closely” to the Texas law.

I didn’t blog about this while it was happening because it was dumb. It was more performance art in a legislative session that was all about grievances and wingnut wish lists. This law will almost certainly die a quiet but expensive-to-defend death without ever being enforced, and we will all get on with our lives. And we will all be a little bit dumber because of it.

Twitter lawsuit against Paxton dismissed

That’s not quite the end of it, though.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in California on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit brought by Twitter against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose legal efforts to investigate the social media platform after it suspended President Donald Trump’s account led the company to sue.

Twitter’s lawsuit included a request for a temporary restraining order that would keep Paxton and his office from enforcing a demand that seeks documents revealing the company’s internal decision making processes for banning users. Judge Maxine M. Chesney said the company’s legal action was “premature.”

Paxton, a passionate supporter of Trump, sent Twitter a civil investigative demand after it banned Trump from its platform following January’s deadly siege at the U.S. Capitol. Twitter wrote in its suit responding to Paxton that it sought to stop him “from unlawfully abusing his authority as the highest law-enforcement officer of the State of Texas to intimidate, harass, and target Twitter in retaliation for Twitter’s exercise of its First Amendment rights.”

The company claimed Paxton’s “retaliatory” investigation violated the First Amendment as an inappropriate use of government authority.

“Twitter’s lawsuit was little more than an attempt to avoid answering my questions about their large-scale censorship and content-moderation policies,” Paxton said in a statement Tuesday.

See here and here for the background. I Am Not A Lawyer, but when I see that the suit was dismissed because it was “premature”, that says to me this didn’t have to do with the merits or legality of the suit, just the timing. The Trib story doesn’t give any explanation of that, so I looked around and eventually found this AP story, which answered my question.

In her Tuesday ruling, Senior U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney of San Francisco ruled that Paxton’s administrative summonses were not “self-executing,” meaning that Twitter was not bound to comply with them absent a court order.

In her seven-page opinion, Chesney noted that Paxton had taken no court action to enforce his summonses and that Twitter was not bound to comply with them without court action. So, she dismissed Twitter’s suit, noting that its request for an injunction or court declaration against Paxton was premature.

Law and Crime explains further.

Paxton’s office issued civil investigative demands (CID)—subpoena-like requests for information— to Twitter, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, seeking the companies’ content moderation policies and practices. The Texas attorney general, who has been under the legal microscope himself due to securities fraud charges and allegations of briberysaid that for years the tech companies “have silenced voices in the social media sphere and shut down competing companies and platforms,” couching his concern as a First Amendment issue that “chills free speech.”

Twitter responded by suing Paxton in the U.S. District Court for Northern California, seeking an injunction barring the AG from “initiating any action” to enforce the investigatory demands and a declaration that the probe is barred by the First Amendment as “unlawful retaliation against Twitter for its moderation of its platform, including its decision to permanently suspend President Trump’s account.”

In a seven-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Maxine M. Chesney, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, found that Paxton opening a probe and issuing CIDs to Twitter did not amount to a “cognizable adverse action” against the company as required for a First Amendment retaliation claim.

Chesney reasoned that, unlike subpoenas, CIDs like the one issued by the attorney general’s office, are not “self-executing” discovery instruments, meaning that they can be ignored, without penalty, unless an additional court order is sought.

“[T]he Office of the Attorney General has no authority to impose any sanction for a failure to comply with its investigation. Rather, the Office of the Attorney General would be required to go to court, where the only possible consequence adverse to Twitter would be a judicial finding that the CID, contrary to Twitter’s assertion, is enforceable,” Chesney wrote. “Accordingly, as, to date, no action has been taken to enforce the CID, the Court finds Twitter’s lawsuit is premature, and, as such, is subject to dismissal.”

In other words, because Twitter is not currently obligated to comply with Paxton’s demand for access to its communications and moderation policies, it’s too early in the legal process for a federal court to decide the controversy on the merits.

Should Paxton pursue a court order, Twitter would likely make the same arguments regarding the investigation being barred as unlawful retaliation under the First Amendment, resulting in a merit-based ruling.

I think that’s pretty clear. I hadn’t realized that Paxton had taken the same action with those other companies, who I guess either decided to ignore them or wait and see what happened with the Twitter case. In any event, now they all know – this is just sound and fury, at least for now. We’ll see if Paxton raises the ante, or if making the news was all he was interested in.

House passes its budget

The rites of spring in Texas: The start of baseball season, the first 90-degree day, and in odd-numbered years, the House Budget Amendment-Palooza.

The Texas House on Thursday night unanimously passed its proposed two-year, $246 billion state budget after members spent hours deliberating which tweaks to make to the massive spending plan.

The House’s proposed budget includes measures that would ban school vouchers, empty the governor’s economic development fund and cap some attorney general spending. But such amendments are not guaranteed to remain in the final spending plan. The proposal now heads back to the Senate, where the legislation will all but certainly then head to a conference committee for the two chambers to hash out their differences before it can be sent to the governor’s desk.

In a statement after Thursday’s vote, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said the chamber passed “a balanced budget that keeps spending in check while addressing the multitude of challenges that our state experiences, especially those experienced over the past year.”

One of the more notable votes happened Thursday afternoon when state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, introduced an amendment that aimed to expand state and federal health care coverage for uninsured Texans. After a brief debate though, the amendment failed 68-80, with one Republican — state Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio — voting for it.

Later Thursday, House members also tackled another point of contention that’s emerged in recent weeks at the Legislature: What to do with tens of billions of dollars in federal funding for coronavirus relief. The chamber unanimously adopted an amendment by state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, to require a special legislative session to appropriate billions in funds that may come in after the Legislature adjourns from its regular session in May.

Before the vote, Morrison said “it is clear … that our founding fathers intended for appropriations to be handled by the Texas Legislature.”

House members also signed off Thursday on a supplemental budget to cover expenses from the current budget. The vote on that legislation, House Bill 2, was also unanimous.

See here for a bit of background. One sign that the ground on which we fight the big culture wars these days has shifted is that I hadn’t given a single thought to school vouchers this session. That great bugaboo from the early to mid-2000’s has lost its luster as a divisive force. Even Dan Patrick had bigger fish to fry this session. I’m perfectly happy to give vouchers a kick in the nads every other year, but I do wish some of the newer culture war hot button issues were as beatable.

Of interest.

The Texas House moved Thursday to rein in Attorney General Ken Paxton’s spending on outside attorneys that are costing taxpayers up to $3,800 an hour.

A state budget amendment brought Thursday by Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, caps the amount that Paxton’s office can pay for outside legal expenses at $500 an hour. The amendment passed the House 73-64.

The House version of the budget, once finalized, will still need to be reconciled with the Senate’s version.

Paxton found himself in hot water with Texas lawmakers this budgeting cycle after he requested more than $43 million for an antitrust lawsuit he launched against Google and hired attorneys at a rate that could cost the state as much as $3,780 an hour for the most senior attorneys, according to their contract.

González, who is an attorney, said her bill is aimed at avoiding such costs in the future.

“Think about all the good we could do with that money,” she said. “How many lives could we improve by spending this money on public education or health care? While our indicted attorney general is dealing with scandal in his own agency, we as legislators need to ensure our constituents’ tax dollars are being used to help people, and not being wasted on exorbitant legal fees.”

During a tense hearing in February, the Texas Senate’s Finance Committee chastised Paxton for his spending on outside counsel in that suit. Paxton had argued that the lawyers were necessary because the case involves a specialized area of law, and the body ultimately did not slash his budget.

See here for some background on that. It’s not clear to me what effect this amendment would have, assuming it survives in the Senate and the conference committee. Maybe Paxton will still be able to pay those fancy outside lawyers as much as he agreed to pay them, they’ll just have to bill for more hours in order to be able to claim all of it. My guess is that this is a symbolic slap on the wrist, but I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

Republicans will never hold Ken Paxton accountable for anything

Don’t be a chump and expect them to.

Best mugshot ever

Texas lawmakers are preparing to arm Attorney General Ken Paxton with $43 million to fight Google in court.

A key committee in the State Senate on Wednesday amended its proposed budget for Paxton, restoring most of the cuts members had threatened and giving the Republican extra money to hire outside attorneys to pursue an antitrust case against Google Inc.

“This case has the potential to bring down significant dollars to the state,” State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said Wednesday in advocating for the revised budget plan.

The move came as Paxton increased the political pressure on the Legislature to restore funding for his office. On Twitter, on Wednesday as the committee was meeting, he called on the public to push lawmakers to restore his office’s budget after lawmakers originally had proposed slashing nearly $90 million and cutting 154 positions from his 4,000-person workforce.

“Fellow Texans: Ensure your legislator is FULLY RESOURCING my Office. Any cuts are a loss for TX and in turn a loss for USA,” Paxton wrote to his 128,000 Twitter followers and on Facebook to more than 286,000 followers.

Paxton is also getting help from outside of Texas on that push. Yesterday, a group called Conservative Action Project sent a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan pushing for restoration of the money and helping fund the Google lawsuit.

“Any reduction to the Office of the Attorney General’s budget will result in tremendous harm to the state and nation,” the letter signed by 15 prominent Republican lawyers, including former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese III. “The cause of liberty and justice cannot afford that.”

Though the Legislature is dominated by Republicans like Paxton, key players in the Senate were upset with Paxton for violating his budget authority by moving $40 million in his budget to cover pay raises that were not authorized by lawmakers.

See here and here for the background. They obviously didn’t stay upset for very long. Hey, having to hire a fancy expensive law firm to do the work of the top lieutenants you had to fire because they accused you of being filthy and corrupt, it could happen to anybody. The House may still make changes, but come on. Don’t fall for that old bit again. We know how this is going to go.

The traveling Paxtons

Seriously?

Ski bunny

While millions of Texans languished in their homes last week without heat, many of them racking up astronomical electricity bills, the state official in charge of consumer protection left to take an out-of-state trip.

According to a campaign spokesman, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton left the state during the middle of the power outage crisis to meet with a fellow attorney general in Utah for a “previously planned meeting.” Hs wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, was also on the trip, reported the Dallas Morning News, which first broke the story.

The revelation marks the third instance of a Texas public official leaving the state during the disaster that affected nearly every one of the state’s 254 counties.

[…]

Ken Paxton spokesman Ian Prior said that Paxton met with Utah AG Sean Reyes to discuss several matters, including their multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google.

Reyes’ spokesman Richard Piatt confirmed that Paxton was in Salt Lake City for meetings on Wednesday and Friday, and had “lengthy discussions” on the Google case.

Prior said Paxton also attended a demonstration of Utah’s law enforcement scenario simulator, which includes a wide variety of situations law enforcement must deal with and is used for training. He said Paxton is considering the program for Texas. Reyes said that meeting would have taken place in the suburb of Murray, about a 15-minute drive away.

“While there, AG Paxton had a number of meetings with the Utah Attorney General over the course of several days,” Prior said. “I cannot further share additional details or the specific reasons on the need for the meeting concerning Google as it involves an ongoing investigation.”

Prior did not respond to questions about the timing of the Paxton’s trip, why the trip was not postponed or whether taxpayers funded the trip.

I’ll bet he didn’t. Not likely to be any good answers to those questions. Oh, and did we mention that Mrs. Paxton, a/k/a State Sen. Angela Paxton, was also there?

On the day of Paxton’s Wednesday meeting, the state’s electrical grid operator reported 2.7 million households in Texas remained without power. Water infrastructure in many cities was also being strained. By Thursday, nearly half the state had had its water disrupted in some way. Many lost running water altogether, while others were issued boil-water notices.

“AG Paxton did lose power, but did not leave Texas until after power had returned to most of the state, including his own home,” Prior said in a statement.

Follow up questions about whether the attorney general was back in Texas on Monday were not answered.

A spokesperson for Angela Paxton confirmed that she was also on the trip, which she said “included meetings that benefit her efforts to promote human dignity and support law enforcement.”

While away, Ken Paxton’s office did send a handful of advisories about his office’s plans to investigate the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — the state’s grid operator — “and other entities that grossly mishandled this week’s extreme winter weather.”

“We will get to the bottom of this power failure and I will tirelessly pursue justice for Texans,” he said in a press release Friday. The release made no mention of his whereabouts.

I’m sure you’re aware that I have a very low opinion of the Paxtons, as I do of Ted Cruz and all the other malfunctioning members of our Republican state government who have no call to service. But even I would have expected them to have slightly better political instincts than this. State Rep. Chris Turner speaks for me:

I don’t begrudge people a certain amount of business travel, but come on. This very easily could have been done remotely, and let’s not forget we are still in a pandemic, which makes any kind of air travel highly questionable at this time. And all of that is before the refusal to answer questions about the specifics of this little jaunt. What is wrong with these people? The Current has more.

So how did Paxton’s budget grilling go?

Meh.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton violated his budget authority when he transferred $40 million of taxpayer money to cover pay raises for some members of his staff without approval of the Legislature or the governor, triggering an angry response from lawmakers on Wednesday.

“You know that I am not pleased,” Senate Finance chair Jane Nelson told Paxton during a meeting about the state budget. “We have an appropriations process for a reason. And if every agency did what yours did, General Paxton, we wouldn’t have a budget. We wouldn’t even need a budget.”

According to state budget officials, Paxton’s office in February 2020 moved money without authority for various expense items, including $8.5 million that was supposed to go to data center services. Some of that money was moved from capital project funds that are not supposed to be used for pay raises. That was a violation of Paxton’s budget transfer authority, according to officials with the state’s Legislative Budget Board. The money funded raises for 1,884 employees in the child support division.

Nelson, a Republican from Flower Mound, made clear to Paxton it is the Legislature’s authority to consider pay raises from the various state agencies as part of the budget process, and it is not up to agency heads to make that call.

“I wish we had done that one differently,” Paxton conceded.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, also pressed Paxton on the move, seeking assurances that it won’t happen again.

“After knowing more about that situation I would say I’ve instructed my staff to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Paxton said.

See here for some background. That’s some truly harsh language there, I don’t know how he managed to withstand it. I’m all sweaty just reading the transcript. What about the money he wants to spend on fancy outside lawyers for that Google lawsuit?

But that request triggered questions from State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who pointed out that Paxton has more than 4,000 employees on his staff, including over 700 lawyers.

“Then you have talented lawyers who are capable of handling these big cases, correct?” Huffman asked.

Paxton replied: “If Google is going to have the very best lawyers that know anti-trust, we wanted to be able to compete on the same playing field.”

I guess when you drive off all the best attorneys on your own staff, you have to get creative. I’ll believe that the Senate is holding him accountable when I see what they do with this budget line item.

On a more serious note:

The U.S. Supreme Court was wrong when it refused to allow Texas to sue other states relating to the Nov. 3 that resulted in Joe Biden being elected president, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said on Wednesday.

Paxton, defending the lawsuit before the Texas Senate, said the U.S. Supreme Court Justices were wrong when they refused to hear his case arguing that other states had violated the Constitution because of the way they conducted their elections. The Supreme Court ruled in early December that Texas did not have the standing to challenge the election results in four battleground states — a conclusion that legal experts across the country had foreseen.

“Our only place to be heard was in the U.S. Supreme Court,” Paxton told the Senate Finance Committee as he defended his proposed budget for the next two years. “I do not think that their jurisprudence is right that they can just have this discretion to not hear your case.”

Under questioning from State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, Paxton said his suit was never about finding election fraud. Instead, he said he was concerned Texas voters were being disenfranchised because other states did not follow federal rules for conducting elections.

“We have no way to go back and even verify whether these elections were credible and whether they were done in a way that wasn’t fraudulent,” Paxton said.

It was President Donald Trump’s lawyers who drafted the lawsuit, the New York Times reported, and Trump’s team turned to Paxton only after Louisiana Attorney General Jeffrey M. Landry, a Republican, declined to take the case. The Times also reported that members of Paxton’s staff argued against filing the suit, and Paxton’s top litigator, Kyle Hawkins, refused to put his name on it.

Hawkins has since resigned.

See here for some background. Sorry, but the smoke pouring out of my ears keeps setting off the fire alarms in our house, so I’m not able to say any more about this. Let me leave you with this as a palate cleanser, and as a song to play on repeat when the FBI finally arrests his sorry ass.

Found that here.

Will the Lege cut Ken Paxton’s budget?

The first draft budget includes a significant cut, but it’s early days.

Best mugshot ever

Already under investigation by the FBI and facing calls to resign from both the left and the right, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton now has the Texas Legislature to worry about.

State lawmakers have rolled out an initial state budget that would slash his request for funding and eliminate more than 150 positions from his office — far deeper cuts than most state agencies face, reducing his staffing to its lowest level since he was elected.

In October, Paxton requested $1.26 billion over two years for his agency with 4,217 positions. Instead, the Texas Senate will begin debate on a budget plan this week that would give him $1.17 billion over the two years and 4,063 positions. That represents $89 million less than requested and 154 fewer positions.

Neither the Republican attorney general nor his colleagues in the state Senate are saying much publicly about the cuts, but that will change on Wednesday when Paxton and his staff are set to testify before the Senate Finance Committee.

“We have a lot of questions that need to be asked,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who is a member of that committee.

The cuts stand out when compared to the proposed budgets of other statewide elected officials. Gov. Greg Abbott and State Comptroller Glenn Hegar both are getting exactly the amount of money and staff they requested.

“Many state agencies saw a reduction in our introduced budget, including the attorney general,” said Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “We made clear we did not want to see a reduction in services for crime victims, including rape crisis center services and sexual assault nurse examiners. This is a starting point.”

[…]

One of the biggest proposed cuts is to Paxton’s fund for hiring outside law firms, consultants, expert witnesses and information technology services. He asked for $205 million for the two-year budget, but the Senate is proposing $118 million.

Paxton’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In budget documents, Paxton says he needs tens of millions of additional funding for managing crime victims services programs and for technology upgrades.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the slowdown in oil and gas revenues, most agencies have been warned to lower their budget expectations.

The proposed cuts come as Paxton faces other administrative woes.

In 2019, the Legislature halted work on upgrading the child support enforcement system that had been on the books since before Paxton took office. Originally budged at $223.6 million, the project had jumped to $419.6 million before lawmakers finally pulled the plug. State budget writers cited the terminated project as a key reason for Paxton’s drop in funding.

Although it is not detailed in his budget request, the Associated Press reported Paxton was seeking about $43 million in state funding to hire outside attorneys for a high-profile antitrust lawsuit against Google. The whistleblowers told the Associated Press that before they reported him to the FBI in September and began resigning, the lawsuit against the search engine giant was set to be handled internally. Paxton runs one of the largest state attorney general’s offices in the United States.

See here for the background. It’s too early to say what will happen – he may answer all of those questions that Bettencourt and others want to ask in a satisfactory way to them on Wednesday, or maybe the Lege will give him more money for things they approve of to make up for the things they cut. Even if there is ultimately a net decrease in funding for Paxton, that doesn’t mean it will be taken as a rebuke for anything in particular. But at least it gets the conversation started.

Let me Google that vaccine locator for you

Good.

In the coming weeks, Google will begin implementing a vaccine locator service on its platforms for Texans to use, including appointment details, clinic hours and more.

The rollout comes as part of a $150 million plan announced by Google in late January for vaccine education and accessibility. Included in this plan are vaccination site location services for Texas, Arizona, Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as plans to open vaccination sites as needed.

“Searches for ‘vaccines near me’ have increased 5x since the beginning of the year and we want to make sure we’re providing locally relevant answers,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a release.

Information for the vaccination locator will be pulled from government agencies, pharmacies and VaccineFinder.org to provide users with detailed assistance.

The plan also includes grants distributed to public health agencies and organizations assisting marginalized individuals with vaccine access.

You can read the full release here. This does seem like the simplest answer to the problem, but it did need for there to be consistent data out there about where to find vaccines in the first place. Now you won’t have to know where to look for that, you can just search as you normally do. Or at least you will in the coming weeks. That should help a lot.

Please don’t ask us about Ken Paxton

A real profile in courage here.

Best mugshot ever

As President Joe Biden’s agenda is dealt an early blow in Texas, the embattled Republican attorney general promising more fights ahead with the new administration is getting little public support from members of his party, even as they cheer the results.

Nearly all of the more than 100 GOP lawmakers in the Texas Legislature did not respond when asked by The Associated Press if they had confidence in Attorney General Ken Paxton, who for months has been beset by an FBI investigation over bribery and abuse-of-office accusations.

At the same time, Republicans are showing no intention of using their overwhelming majority and legislative powers to confront Paxton over the coming months in the state Capitol, where lawmakers are back at work for the first time since eight top deputies for the attorney general leveled accusations against him. All eight have resigned or were fired since October.

Since then, Paxton has baselessly challenged Biden’s victory, including asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the election. And on Tuesday, he won a court order halting Biden’s 100-day moratorium on deportations, in a lawsuit filed just two days after the president was sworn in.

Now, with America’s biggest red state ready to resume the role of foil to a Democratic administration, the atmosphere surrounding Paxton in some ways resembles the peace that privately weary Republicans made with Donald Trump’s bombastic presidency — applauding the work while mostly staying silent about the surrounding turmoil.

“That’s the real measurement. That’s the real litmus test,” said Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pointed toward the deportation lawsuit and challenges last year to mail-in ballot applications around his Houston district. “Because I already know, in my case, in my county, the AG’s office made a major difference.”

The AP contacted the offices of every GOP lawmaker in the Legislature, asking if they had confidence in Paxton and whether the Legislature should act on his deputies’ accusations. Only two, Bettencourt and Rep. John Smithee, responded, both saying they had no reason to question the attorney general’s job performance and that they were waiting for the results of outside investigations.

Paxton’s budget requests may yet force Republican lawmakers to consider the exodus from his office. But so far, members of his party — who control of every lever of state government — haven’t rushed to put one of their top elected officials under a microscope.

That last paragraph is a reference to the $43 million Paxton has requested to pay outside attorneys in his lawsuit against Google. The reason he needs to pay outside attorneys is because all of the experienced senior litigators had jumped ship over the Nate Paul affair and resulting FBI investigation. It’s possible, I suppose, that Republicans in the Lege will hesitate to write that check for him, but at least they’ll have to answer questions about it and take a vote if they choose to support him. As for the rest and the shameless running and hiding that they’re all doing, this suggests to me that while they have no real intention of holding Paxton accountable for any of his actions, they want to leave themselves the wiggle room to become all righteous and shocked to discover the degree of his offenses in the event the FBI and federal prosecutors nail him with a laundry list of criminal indictments. Just remember, if and when that happens, they didn’t want to talk about it beforehand.

Another way Ken Paxton is costing you money

He’s something else, this guy.

Best mugshot ever

Texas may pay tens of millions of dollars to outside attorneys hired to handle a major lawsuit against Google — money the state did not plan to spend before a scandal enveloped Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton this fall.

That’s under agreements signed last month with outside lawyers based in Chicago, Houston and Washington, D.C., including high-profile plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Lanier and the law firm Keller Lenkner, who will lead Texas’ multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google.

The lawsuit came out of a Texas-led investigation launched more than a year ago. But until fall 2020, top agency staff intended to handle the case internally, instead of paying costly outside lawyers, a former senior Paxton aide told The Texas Tribune. The Associated Press first reported the timeline on Tuesday.

Jeff Mateer, who led the attorney general’s office for years as Paxton’s top deputy, said that when he resigned in October, the agency had no intention of hiring outside lawyers. Darren McCarty, another senior attorney, was leading an internal team on the case.

“Darren was more than able to do it,” Mateer told the AP.

But Mateer and McCarty were among the eight whistleblowers who left the agency after telling law enforcement they believed Paxton broke the law by doing favors for a political donor. Both resigned last fall, part of a notable exodus of the agency’s top staff.

The whistleblowers’ allegations have reportedly sparked an FBI investigation, but Paxton has insisted that the agency’s work has not been interrupted by the criminal investigation of him. Still, the contracts for the Google lawyers are an early indication of what cost taxpayers may bear for the latest drama surrounding Texas’ embattled attorney general.

The attorney general’s office will ask the Legislature for $43 million to pay the outside lawyers, according to a contract obtained by The Texas Tribune. If lawmakers do not grant that money — which may be a tall order during what’s expected to be a tight budget debate — the outside attorneys will be paid solely out of whatever monetary damages are recovered from Google, dollars that would have otherwise flowed into state coffers.

[…]

The expensive outside counsel contracts were inked in December, the same day the case was filed in federal court. The law firms were brought on only after the agency staff leading the probe fled the attorney general’s office in the wake of a fresh Paxton scandal.

Lanier told the Tribune he met with Paxton in Austin in November to discuss the possibility of working on the case, and emphasized that his team’s work was not intended to be “a big financial bonanza for the Lanier firm,” but rather to force a major restructuring of Google.

Lanier has given political contributions to Paxton, among a number of other top Texas officials.

The case, which comes alongside a number of other major government lawsuits against Google and other tech giants, takes aim at the company’s advertising practices.

Though it’s not yet clear exactly how much Texas could end up losing to the outside attorneys, it could be a massive figure. The outside lawyers’ contingency fee will either be based on an hourly rate equation — which could net the most senior attorneys as much as $3780 per hour — or be calculated as a percentage of the total Google settlement, whichever is less.

See here for the last update on the latest Paxton scandal. I will try, at least for a moment, to be as objective as I can about this. Paying the fee up front is a hedge against having to cough up a much larger amount of a hypothetical future award or settlement agreement, not to mention the time and effort it will surely take to haggle over the proper cut of said award. Lawyers cost money, this is going to run into some bucks no matter how you slice it, may as well get some certainty.

On the other hand:

1) The plaintiffs may lose this lawsuit, or have it overturned or any award reduced on appeal. We’d also be splitting any award a couple dozen ways, so it would have to be pretty freaking big for the attorneys’ cut to be more than $43 million.

2) Any future award is just that, in the future, likely years in the future. $43 million bucks now is worth more than an equivalent amount in, say, 2027. This is why Lottery winners who get the up-front payout instead of the over-20-years payout get a lot less than the stated prize amount.

3) Not to put too fine a point on it, but we don’t have an extra $43 million lying around right now. Yeah, sure, Rainy Day Fund yadda yadda yadda, but we know how that works. And yeah, $43 million is couch money compared to the real budget, but what would you rather spend it on this biennium – Ken Paxton’s fancy outside attorneys, or vaccines and the people to administer them? I know where my money would go.

4) Again not to nitpick, but if Ken Paxton hadn’t been a fucking awful Attorney General, we wouldn’t be in this predicament right now. He drove off the senior staff who could have handled this in house. Every dollar that Texas loses out on as a result of this, either up front or down the line, is his fault.

So yeah, I’m a big No on paying the outside attorneys at this time. I’ll roll the dice on the future award being either sufficiently small that the contingency fee is a bargain compared to the $43 million, or so freaking enormous that who cares if the Lanier firm makes out like bandits. And maybe, just maybe, we can get a new Attorney General in 2022 and we can hire another good senior staff, and maybe take the case back from the outsiders. I’ll be very, very interested to see what the Republicans in the Legislature make of this.

Driverless taxis have arrived

In Phoenix.

Google offshoot Waymo announced it is launching the nation’s first commercial driverless taxi service in this and other Phoenix suburbs. The 24/7 service, dubbed Waymo One, will let customers summon self-driving minivans by a smartphone app, a la Uber or Lyft.

Waymo’s move comes after nearly a decade of development, more than a billion dollars in investment and 10 million miles of testing on public roads. The project was embraced by top state and local officials even as questions have been raised here and elsewhere about the speed of the technology’s rollout.

“In Arizona, we still do enjoy a bit of wild, wild West mentality. We have this great desire to be exploring and conquering this frontier,” said Rob Antoniak, chief operating officer of Valley Metro, which helps oversee the metropolitan area’s 500-square-mile transit system and next year will begin paying some Waymo fares for the elderly and people with disabilities, as part of a pilot. “And we enjoy a regulatory environment that embraces that attitude.”

Waymo, part of Alphabet, is starting small, rolling out the service first to hundreds of the company’s local volunteer testers, and only in part of this sprawling region of almost 5 million people. But the move is a major – and potentially revealing – step in the tightly controlled and hype-filled realm of self-driving vehicles.

“It’s a big leap between testing this stuff and booking and transporting a passenger who’s paying money for a service,” said Costa Samaras, an automation and infrastructure expert at Carnegie Mellon University who worked as an engineer on a New York subway expansion early in his career. “This is real.”

Waymo will now be putting its technology through the public wringer, with cellphone-toting customers – freed from nondisclosure agreements – ready to capture and tweet every miscue, just as they might with a bad airline flight, Samaras said.

“The trajectory of the industry, not just at Waymo, is going to depend on a lot of these early experiences. Do people feel safe? Do people feel comfortable? Is it seamless?” Samaras said. “If it is, we’ll see more of it. If not, people will go back to the engineering room.”

[…]

There is significant public skepticism about self-driving cars, and polls find that most people don’t want to ride in them. Earlier this year, a driverless Uber SUV killed a pedestrian pushing a bike across a dark street in nearby Tempe. The emergency braking system had been shut off for driverless testing, and the backup driver did not start slowing down until after the vehicle struck Elaine Herzberg, 49. That safety driver had looked down more than 200 times and her smartphone was streaming NBC’s “The Voice” in the run-up to the deadly collision, according to investigators.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in March that his team’s vehicles “would be able to handle situations like that.”

We’ll see about that. I’m not ready to ride in one of those things on the real streets. A fixed-route shuttle in a low-traffic area, sure. Beyond that, I’ll let others do the beta testing. I’m not the only one who’s leery of this. How about you? TechCrunch has more.

News flash: Businesses still hate bathroom bills

IBM hates them.

As state lawmakers return to Austin for legislative overtime, tech giant IBM is stepping up its fight to defeat legislation it says would discriminate against children and harm its Texas recruiting efforts.

In an internal email sent Monday to thousands of employees around the world, IBM’s human resources chief outlined the New York-based company’s opposition to what the letter described as discriminatory proposals to regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans. IBM sent the letter to employees the same day it dispatched nearly 20 top executives to the Lone Star State to lobby lawmakers at the state Capitol. A day earlier, it took out full-page ads in major Texas newspapers underlining its opposition to legislation that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and a cadre of far-right lawmakers have deemed a top priority.

“Why Texas? And why now? On July 18th, the Texas legislature will start a thirty-day special session, where it is likely some will try to advance a discriminatory ‘bathroom bill’ similar to the one that passed in North Carolina last year,” wrote Diane Gherson, IBM’s senior vice president for human resources. “It is our goal to convince Texas elected officials to abandon these efforts.”

[…]

The email IBM sent to employees on Monday echoed concerns businesses voiced in their letter to Abbott earlier this year, saying the company — which has more than 10,000 employees in Texas — is focused on defeating the bathroom proposals because they’re detrimental to inclusive business practices and fly in the face of “deep-rooted” values against discrimination targeting LGBT people.

“A bathroom bill like the one in Texas sends a message that it is okay to discriminate against someone just for being who they are,” Gherson, the company’s HR chief, wrote.

As do other companies.

CEOs from 14 leading employers in the Dallas area, including AT&T, American Airlines and Texas Instruments, are taking a public stand against a “bathroom bill” that would discriminate against transgender people in Texas.

On Monday morning, they delivered a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus. A bathroom bill, the letter says, “would seriously hurt the state’s ability to attract new businesses, investment and jobs.”

“Our companies are competing every day to bring the best and brightest talent to Dallas,” the letter says. “To that end, we strongly support diversity and inclusion. This legislation threatens our ability to attract and retain the best talent in Texas, as well as the greatest sporting and cultural attractions in the world.”

The letter is signed by Randall Stephenson of AT&T, Doug Parker of American Airlines, Gary Kelly of Southwest Airlines, Kim Cocklin of Atmos Energy, Matthew Rose of BNSF Railway, Mark Rohr of Celanese, Harlan Crow of Crow Holdings, Sean Donohue of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, Emmitt Smith of EJ Smith Enterprises, Fred Perpall of the Beck Group, David Seaton of Fluor, Thomas Falk of Kimberly-Clark, Trevor Fetter of Tenet Healthcare and Richard Templeton of Texas Instruments.

As the story notes, these efforts join other efforts by businesses to stop this thing. Such efforts have been met with an indifference bordering on hostility and contempt by Abbott and especially Patrick. I appreciate what all these companies and groups like TAB and the various chambers of commerce and visitors’ bureaus have done so far, which has been a tremendous help in keeping this awful legislation from reaching Abbott’s desk. But the big question remains what they will do after the special session gavels out, whatever the outcome of these efforts. I’ve had this question for a long time now. Between potty politics and the anti-immigration fervor of SB4, a lot of damage has already been done to our state’s reputation, and the men in charge keep wanting to do more. They’re not going to go away if they lose this session – they have the zealous will and a crap-ton of money powering them. Will these business interests, who have been getting so badly served by politicians they have generally supported, or at least tacitly accepted, in the past, put their money where their press conferences are and actively oppose Abbott and Patrick and their legislative enablers? Or will they bend over and take another lash from the paddle? One wonders at this point what they think they have to lose. The Chron has more.

Senate passes “driverless car” bill

This is a first.

Sen. Kelly Hancock

Texas took a step toward self-driving vehicles zipping up and down its highways and streets under a first-of-its-kind measure approved Thursday by the Texas Senate.

Approved by a 31-0 vote, Senate Bill 1622 would implement minimum safety standards for so-called “autonomous vehicles” and “automated driving systems” — the first time the new technology will be regulated in the Lone Star State.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said oversight is needed to ensure the rapidly-evolving technology — some of which involve human navigators and others that are fully automated — remains safe on Texas streets and highways.

He said the legislation defines “automated driving system” to mirror current requirements of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has set nationwide safety standards.

The bill also pre-empts local officials in Texas from imposing their own rules or requiring a franchise for companies to operate autonomous vehicles — the latest such measure approved in this legislative session to curb local regulations on a variety of issues.

Owners of “autonomous” vehicles would have comply with state registration and title laws and follow traffic and motor-vehicle laws; the vehicles must be equipped with a data-recording system, meet federal safety standards and have insurance.

In the event of an accident, the “autonomous” vehicle immediately would have to stop and notify the proper authorities.

The bill number listed in the story is incorrect – SB1622 is a completely different piece of legislation, authored by Sen. Carlos Uresti, though as you can see it too passed the Senate on Thursday. The correct bill appears to be SB2205. As noted before, this is the third session in which a driverless car bill has been introduced. A bill by then-Sen. Rodney Ellis in 2015 failed to pass after being opposed by Google. Either Google has changed its tune, or this bill satisfied its objections from last time, or this time the Senate didn’t care, I can’t tell. A similar House bill has not yet received a hearing, so if this is going anywhere, it will surely be via Hancock’s SB2205.

As for the by now standard pre-emption of local regulations, at least in this case I’d say it’s appropriate. The state has been the regulator of vehicles in the past and has the infrastructure in place to deal with those regulations. My fear is that we’re creating a new norm here, and that bills that don’t contain local pre-emption clauses are going to be seen as the exceptions. Be that as it may, this bill overall seems like a good idea. We’ll see what happens to it in the House.

Once again with driverless car legislation

Third time’s the charm, right?

Rep. Charlie Geren

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.

[…]

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.

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.

See here and here for more on Ellis’ 2015 bill. Believe it or not, there was a driverless car bill filed in 2013 as well. We’ve been talking about this for longer than you might remember. I don’t know that Rep. Geren’s bill will do any better than those two did, but it’s there just in case a consensus can be reached.

Ready for driverless cars, Houston?

Well, they’re coming, ready or not.

Researchers, business leaders and elected officials are about to turn Texas into the biggest laboratory for connected cars in the nation, with the likeliest place to spot a self-driving car in Houston along the high occupancy vehicle and toll lanes along some of the region’s busiest freeways.

Officials are moving quickly to create a welcoming environment for the vehicles and the scientists and engineers who will fine tune them, though safety standards and even testing methods remain a work in progress.

“We want companies to come to Texas and develop (autonomous and connected vehicle) technologies,” said Christopher Poe, assistant director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and head of the agency’s connected and automated vehicle program.

[…]

In the Houston area, some of the first tests could be along high occupancy vehicle and high occupancy toll lanes where the cars could drive themselves in typical situations and then cede control to a person for stop-and-go traffic, Poe and others said.

To prepare for the cars, the A&M transportation institute and the Texas Department of Transportation earlier this month forged an agreement that allows researchers to test wireless-connected and automated vehicle technologies on state highways. The agreement will pave the way for installing devices on state highway rights of way such as signs readable by automated vehicles and even detectors that can communicate with cars to provide traffic information and even control traffic signals.

The development will take automated cars from closed areas such as the Texas A&M’s RELLIS campus west of College Station to the streets of Texas cities.

Before that, however, researchers and local officials in various Texas cities will develop locations where certain driverless vehicle technologies can be tested. In Houston, officials have identified the Texas Medical Center, high occupancy vehicle lanes maintained by Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Port of Houston as potential live testing locations. Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso also are readying for live testing.

Plans are to test facets of connected cars, such as traffic signals that could relay information and communicate in the Texas Medical Center, or autonomous vehicles that could lug freight from the docks of the Port of Houston to a central sorting operation.

Freight, along with public transit, are two transportation sectors in which businesses and local governments see the most potential for connected and autonomous vehicles. Texas, meanwhile, is ripe with opportunities for both, with increasing demand predicted for both trucks, freight rail and options other than solo driving in the state’s largest metro regions.

Local officials, especially Metro transit leaders, are particularly eyeing a western stretch of Westheimer, said Terence Fontaine, the transit agency’s executive vice president and chief innovation officer. The 12 miles of road between Loop 610 and Texas 6 – technically part of the state highway system as FM 1093 – is a major thoroughfare and big headache for drivers, with stops and starts because of traffic flow and seemingly ill-timed traffic lights.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. Much of this isn’t about fully autonomous vehicles but about integrating traffic and transportation systems to be able to work with those vehicles when the are ready, and as noted above there’s a light-synchronization piece for Metro. In the meantime, there’s a pilot program coming.

A program piloting self-driving vehicles around Texas, starting at closed facilities but one day moving to busy streets, will join nine others as the first proving grounds in the U.S. for autonomous vehicles.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials made the announcement late last week, among a dash of decisions in the last days of the Obama Administration before federal offices handed power to Donald Trump and his cabinet.

The proving grounds are a significant step in helping develop cars and trucks that can safely travel on American roads, including setting the standards for what regulations will oversee vehicles moving autonomously.

“This group will openly share best practices for the safe conduct of testing and operations as they are developed, enabling the participants and the general public to learn at a faster rate and accelerating the pace of safe deployment,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Thursday.

[…]

Under terms of the proving ground program overseen by federal officials, the proving grounds will be operational by Jan. 1, 2018.

Can’t wait to see what that looks like. Beyond this, consumer testing is farther out because Texas law hasn’t been updated to accommodate it. One such attempt in the last session went down to defeat after Google and other manufacturers didn’t like what was in it. I’m sure something else will get introduced this year, so we’ll see if it is more successful this time. Are you ready to look over at the car next to you and not see someone in the driver’s seat?

Google enters the rideshare market

This will be worth watching.

Google is moving onto Uber Technologies Inc.’s turf with a ride-sharing service to help San Francisco commuters join carpools, a person familiar with the matter said, jumping into a booming but fiercely competitive market.

Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., began a pilot program around its California headquarters in May that enables several thousand area workers at specific firms to use the Waze app to connect with fellow commuters. It plans to open the program to all San Francisco-area Waze users this fall, the person said. Waze, which Google acquired in 2013, offers real-time driving directions based on information from other drivers.

Unlike Uber and its crosstown San Francisco rival Lyft Inc., which each largely operate as on-demand taxi businesses, Waze wants to connect riders with drivers who are already headed in the same direction. The company has said it aims to make fares low enough to discourage drivers from operating as taxi drivers. Waze’s current pilot program charges riders at most 54 cents a mile—less than most Uber and Lyft rides—and, for now, Google doesn’t take a fee.

Some years ago, I remember reading a story in the Chronicle about Houston drivers cruising through the park-and-ride lots in the mornings to pick up passengers for the commute into downtown. They were doing this because having an extra person or two meant they could take the HOV lane, thus greatly reducing the drive time they’d face if they went solo, as they would have done otherwise. This was done more or less ad hoc – I’m pretty sure this was all before Facebook and smartphones were things – but it seemed to work pretty well. I bring it up because that’s what this story reminds me of; having the smartphone app and the financial backing of a behemoth like Google just formalizes what had been an ad hoc process borne of frustration and impatience. I have no idea how well this will scale outside of a unique environment like the San Francisco area, but if anyone can make it into something viable, it’s Google. Slate and the Associated Press have more.

Are driverless cars ready or not?

GM and Lyft think theirs are pretty close.

Lyft

General Motors Co. and Lyft Inc. within a year will begin testing a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt electric taxis on public roads, a move central to the companies’ joint efforts to challenge Silicon Valley giants in the battle to reshape the auto industry.

The plan is being hatched a few months after GM invested $500 million in Lyft, a ride-hailing company whose services rival Uber Technologies Inc. The program will rely on technology being acquired as part of GM’s separate $1 billion planned purchase of San Francisco-based Cruise Automation Inc., a developer of autonomous-driving technology.

Details of the autonomous-taxi testing program are still being worked out, according to a Lyft executive, but it will include customers in a yet-to-be disclosed city. Customers will have the opportunity to opt in or out of the pilot when hailing a Lyft car from the company’s mobile app.

[…]

The new effort is directed mostly at challenging Alphabet and Uber. The Google self-driving car program has gained a sizable lead over conventional auto makers via testing in California and other states, and it received an additional boost this week through a minivan-supply agreement with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. Uber, much bigger than Lyft, has its own self-driving research center in Pittsburgh and is preparing to usher autonomous vehicles in to its fleet by 2020.

I alluded to this yesterday. My reaction remains: Next year? Really? That’s pretty darned aggressive. It’s also pretty interesting considering that the people who are making driverless cars have been suggesting that we should maybe slow our roll a little.

Engineers, safety advocates and even automakers have a safety message for federal regulators eager to get self-driving cars on the road: slow down.

Fully self-driving cars may be the future of the automotive industry, but they aren’t yet up to the demands of real-world driving, several people told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during a public meeting Friday.

A slower, more deliberative approach may be needed instead of the agency’s rapid timetable for producing guidance for deploying the vehicles, according to an auto industry trade association.

[…]

A General Motors official recently told a Senate committee that the automaker expects to deploy self-driving cars within a few years through a partnership with the ride-sharing service Lyft. Google, a pioneer in the development of self-driving cars, is pushing Congress to give the NHTSA new powers to grant it special, expedited permission to sell cars without steering wheels or pedals.

But many of those who addressed the meeting, the first of two the agency has scheduled as it works on the guidelines, described a host of situations that self-driving cars still can’t handle:

—Poorly marked pavement, including parking lots and driveways, could foil the technology, which relies on clear lane markings.

—Bad weather can interfere with vehicle sensors.

—Self-driving cars can’t take directions from a policeman.

—Inconsistent traffic-control devices such as horizontal versus lateral traffic lights.

Until the technology has advanced beyond the point where ordinary conditions are problematic, “it is dangerous, impractical and a major threat to the public health, safety and welfare to deploy them,” said Mark Golden, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers.

There have been thousands of “disengagements” reported in road tests of self-driving cars in which the vehicles automatically turned control over to a human being, said John Simpson, privacy project director of Consumer Watchdog.

“Self-driving cars simply aren’t ready to safely manage too many routine traffic situations without human intervention,” he said.

There’s also the concern that driverless cars, which by definition will be connected to the Internet, will be vulnerable to malware. We’re not at a point where today’s cars can be successfully hijacked, as dramatized on a recent episode of Elementary, but it is something the industry is gaming out now. The larger point here is that our driverless car future may be farther off than we think. Or maybe it’s closer than we think. We’ll see how that taxi pilot goes.

One more thing:

Executives at Lyft and Uber have said one of the top hurdles to their success is navigating a patchwork of regulations that govern the use of autonomous vehicles and liabilities. In an effort to ease regulatory concerns, Lyft will start with autonomous cars that have drivers in the cockpit ready to intervene—but the driver is expected to eventually be obsolete.

“We will want to vet the autonomous tech between Cruise, GM and ourselves and slowly introduce this into markets,” Taggart Matthiesen, Lyft’s product director, said in an interview. That will “ensure that cities would have full understanding of what we are trying to do here.”

Well, at least we won’t be fighting about fingerprints any more. I shudder to think how much money will be dumped into those lobbying – and possibly electioneering – efforts.

Driverless car technology update

I have a personal stake in this story.

James Kuffner, the head of Google’s robotics division and one of the original team of ten who started its self-driving car work, has left the company for a job at Toyota’s $1 billion research institute in Silicon Valley.

His departure will come as a blow to the search and advertising giant, which has been plowing forward with a number of robotics projects including the self-driving car, which it hopes to offer for public use some time next year.

“It’s becoming clear that in the next phase of machine learning, access to lots of data to find and fix corner cases and to make a robust system is going to be very important, and I think Toyota is very well positioned to do that with its resources and its data,” Kuffner said in an interview at the CES expo in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

[…]

Toyota’s billion-dollar investment in the center was only announced in November, but the institute has already opened for business in two locations: one at the Stanford Research Park in Palo Alto and one in Kendall Square in Cambridge. They were chosen for their proximity to Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

TRI’s mission is to take fundamental robotics research into products that can benefit all of society. One of the loftier visions is the development of cars that are incapable of crashing due to their complex AI systems, but the institute will also look at home-help robotics for the elderly and other projects.

[…]

To be sure, the goal of a completely self-driving car that handles any situation and cannot crash is some distance away, but Kuffner said a lot will be possible in the next few years.

“We’re actually closer than people think to having self-driving cars on the road,” he said. “It is an evolution. There is a continuous spectrum between full manual control and full autonomous control, and there’s going to be phased deployments.”

He cited some of the current technologies making their way into cars, such as lane assist and adaptive cruise control.

“These safety features are creeping into lots of cars you can buy today, and the pace is increasing, so I think people will be happily surprised in the next five years at how our vehicles have changed.”

James is my cousin, and I found this story on his Facebook page in January. Needless to say, we’re all quite proud of him. I talked with him about his work on driverless cars a couple of years ago when we were in Portland visiting family, actually did an interview with him that I hoped to publish here, but we never got clearance from Google on it. I remember him telling me that when they started out, their intent was to make the autonomous cars follow all of the rules of the road, but quickly learned that this was not only impractical but dangerous. For example, in highway merge situations, sometimes you have to exceed the speed limit to ensure safety. They aimed instead at making the car behave more like a median driver, by which I mean one whose behavior is in the middle of the range of how drivers behave. It’s a challenging question to model behavior like this, and my guess is that’s one reason why we are seeing this phased implementation of the technology.

Anyway. The driverless car business continues to attract a lot of money and a lot of discussion about what the future of driving will look like. And a member of my family is playing a leading part in that. I think that’s pretty cool.

Driverless car testing in Austin

Be on the lookout.

After years of experimenting with its groundbreaking autonomous vehicle technology almost exclusively in California, Google confirmed Monday that it has begun testing one of its self-driving vehicles in Austin.

A white Lexus RX 450h SUV outfitted with the company’s sensors and software began making trips without the aid of a driver in the city within the past week, said Jennifer Haroon, head of business operations for the Google self-driving car project. Another vehicle will join it in the area for testing this week.

While California and other states have updated their laws to address self-driving vehicles, neither Texas nor Austin has followed suit, meaning Google did not need to get permission before initiating such testing in the city. Company officials briefed Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and the city of Austin about the testing in advance, Haroon said. No public funds are involved in the testing, and the company is not providing any funding to local or state entities related to the testing.

The expansion of the project to Texas comes as the company’s experimental fleet has safely logged over a million miles and its software has matured to be able to simultaneously detect hundreds of different activities going on around a vehicle, Haroon said. Two “safety drivers” will be in each of the vehicles whenever traveling in Austin in self-driving mode.

“They’re there to see how the vehicle is behaving, provide feedback to our engineering team and, if needed, take over [driving],” Haroon said.

Until now, Google’s vehicle testing has mostly centered around the San Francisco area, where the technology giant is based. The new testing will be focused in an area north and northeast of downtown Austin, according to company officials. The cars will not drive autonomously on any area highways, for now. Google officials are hoping Austin will provide its self-driving vehicles with an environment different from what researchers have already explored in recent years.

“We think there may be some geographic differences,” Haroon said. “There could be some differences in driver/pedestrian/bicyclist behavior. We really won’t know until we’ve started testing more.”

See here for previous driverless car blogging. As the story notes, this is not the first time one of these vehicles has visited Austin, though it is the first time for this kind of testing. I’m guessing this will all be fairly low-key – Google would certainly prefer it to be that way – but you never know. Beta testing is often exciting in unanticipated ways. If you happen to see this car tooling around, leave a comment and let us know.

Driverless car bill is dead

So much for that.

A bill to update Texas law for the age of driverless cars has stalled due to two serious roadblocks: Google and major car manufacturers. Both the technology giant and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group, have come out against a proposal from state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, to create a pilot program aimed at monitoring and encouraging autonomous vehicle testing in Texas.

Google has previously encouraged the development of similar laws in other states including California and Nevada, yet is refusing to publicly explain why it is opposed to such a measure in Texas. At last week’s committee hearing on the bill, a Google representative registered as opposed to the measure — but declined to testify as to why. The Texas Tribune got a similar response from Google after repeated requests: “We have no comment to offer on this.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 12 automobile manufacturers including General Motors and Ford, was more forthcoming. Spokesman Dan Gage said the group was concerned that the bill might create state-specific standards related to safety or manufacturing that could tap the brakes on the development of the technology.

“We don’t feel that legislation in this area in Texas right now is necessary,” Gage said. “The concern is by putting pen to paper you actually could prematurely limit some of those types of developments.”

[…]

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, adjourned the hearing without a vote on the bill. Ellis said Tuesday that he does not plan to ask Nichols for a vote on the bill. He described the opposition from Google and the automobile manufacturers as likely insurmountable this session, but predicted both groups will regret that the state didn’t create a clear legal framework for testing the technology in Texas.

“I’m willing to bet that you’ll have people in the industry coming back to the Legislature saying, ‘We want some clear instructions on what we can and cannot do,’” Ellis said.

See here for the background. I get the logic of waiting to see what technologies actually come out before acting, but the Lege’s every-other-year schedule plus its often-clogged pipeline for getting bills that aren’t considered a top priority passed could leave it well behind said technology. That would be true of anything they did pass as well, as it could become quickly obsolete, so I suppose it’s a matter of what approach one prefers. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens in 2017.

Reading and writing and operating systems

Religion, politics, and operating systems – three things sure to start a spirited discussion.

By January 2016, when the Houston Independent School District’s latest tech initiative hits full stride, the district will issue laptops to every high school student and teacher in the district. All 65,000 of those laptops will run Windows 7 and cloud-based Office 365. For Microsoft, that’s sweet news: a solid little victory in the digital war for global domination.

As every tech geek knows, Microsoft, the world’s third-largest technology company, is embroiled in a three-way war with the first- and second-largest, Apple and Google. Each of those behemoths hopes to establish its own computing ecosystem as the world’s digital default, to be the system that everyone everywhere just seems to use on the fast-growing array of devices that connect to the Web. (Coming soon: Dog collars! Home thermostats! Cars!)

In the last two years, elementary, middle and high schools have been among the war’s hottest fronts. In part, that’s simply because K-12 education is a fast-growing, largely untapped market: According to analyst Phillip Maddocks of Futuresource, a research and forecasting company, only about 25 percent of U.S. students and teachers are currently equipped with devices such as laptops or tablets.

But that number is bound to rise. Last year, President Barack Obama announced the creation of the federal ConnectEd program, with a goal of making high-speed broadband available to 99 percent of American students by 2017. In January, Obama’s State of the Union address included a call to bring American classrooms up to date. Soon after, a group of private tech companies, including Apple and Microsoft, committed to donate $750 million in devices, software, training and Wi-Fi – as well as to offering deep discounts.

For those tech companies, such efforts are one part altruism, one part gold rush. As the remaining 75 percent of American students obtain devices and Wi-Fi, their hardware, software and habits are up for grabs.

“The scale is what’s so new,” says Cameron Evans, chief technology officer at Microsoft Education. “Before, there were always five computers in the back of the classroom. Until 2012, that was acceptable.”

As the story notes, Apple has been the leader in this space, but they’ve been vulnerable lately thanks to the high profile flop in Fort Bend and some embarrassing security failures in Los Angeles. Both were more due to design and implementation flaws than anything else, but they still look bad. Microsoft and Google have been competing on price and on compatibility, and have made some inroads. I know this is somewhat heretical to say, especially for an IT guy, but to some extent the OS and hardware don’t really matter. Basic concepts, about things like security and programming and how to use various apps, don’t really change that much from one device to the next. Of course, from the vendors’ perspective, they’re trying to lock in preferences. From my perspective, I’d like to see kids get experience with multiple platforms. Mostly I hope they get a solid curriculum that really takes advantage of the technology available to them. We’re still figuring out how to do that, so I hope we stay flexible and open-minded about it.

Metro to make real time bus info available

Good news from Metro:

METRO’s partnership with Google is getting real – as in offering real-time bus info.

To sweeten the ‘real’ deal, METRO will also be providing Google with detour alerts as well.

“We are focused on improving the customer experience,” said METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “Not only will our customers know when their bus will arrive, but if there’s a detour in place on their route, that information will pop up and they can factor this in their plans, too.”

If for any reason a bus loses connectivity – as the GPS information is transmitted via cellular communications – trips posted will revert to the bus’ scheduled times.

About 77 percent of METRO’s bus fleet is currently equipped with the hardware to provide real-time bus information. The agency is working to bring the remainder of the fleet online.
METRO TRIP app logo

As a reminder – the agency offers other rider tools such as the METRO T.R.I.P. app which helps customers on-the-go plan their trip using scheduled and real-time information, among other features.

“METRO is the first major transit agency, that we’re aware of, to develop its own stand-alone transit app,” said METRO President & CEO Tom Lambert. “We are trying to make it easier for our customers to navigate our system by bringing these types of tools to their fingertips.”

METRO first teamed up with Google in 2008 by sharing its schedules which were loaded into Google Maps for quick, easy trip planning. Of the two trip planners METRO offers on its website, about 50 percent use Google Maps.

The agency’s trip planner will continue to be available to customers but will be phased out in the future.

METRO’s real-time data on Google Maps rolls out Friday, April 25.

Very cool. To me, the most stressful part of taking the bus, which I do at least once a week these days, is not knowing how long it will be before the next bus arrives. I always have the feeling as I approach a bus stop from a direction where I can’t see the traffic coming that there’s a bus just about to arrive and I’m going to miss it. Now at least I’ll be able to either reassure myself that I’ve got plenty of time to get to the stop, or make myself walk faster. Either way it’s a win.

Google energy

Fascinating.

Google may not seem like an energy company, but it sure is acting like one.

Through more than $1 billion in investments and through large contracts for renewable power, Google has become the most significant player in the energy business outside of actual energy companies and financial institutions.

The Internet search giant’s efforts to transform the world’s use of power and fossil fuels have included a $200 million investment in a Texas wind farm and the purchase of a company that makes innovative flying wind turbines. It has invested $168 million in a solar project in California and is funding the development of an offshore grid to support wind turbines off the Atlantic coast.

In total, it has an ownership stake in more than 2 gigawatts of power generation capacity, the equivalent of Hoover Dam, said Rick Needham, Google’s director of energy and sustainability.

Google even has a subsidiary, Google Energy, that’s authorized by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to sell wholesale electricity that it generates from its power assets.

Analysts say it is the only company other than energy businesses and financial institutions that has taken large ownership stakes in major stand-alone power projects.

Read the whole thing – try this FuelFix link if the houstonchronicle.com one is not available to you – it’s quite a story. It’s great to see an innovator and big investor like Google pushing renewable energy for business reasons as well as altruistic ones. I hope a lot of other companies follow their lead.

The driverless car visits Austin

Anyone there get to see it?

Google, which has been developing and touting the future of self-piloting cars, has parked a driverless car in front of the Hilton Hotel downtown, site of the three-day Texas Transportation Forum. The modified Lexus hybrid is equipped with all manner of sensors that allow it to be aware of everything occurring around it and instantly react to those obstacles. The most noticeable of those features is a rotating laser radar device, mounted on a frame on the car’s roof, that generates a detailed three-dimensional map of its environment.

[…]

The American-Statesman has learned that Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton will give the car a test spin at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

Anthony Levandowski, a Google project manager who has worked on the driverless car project, is scheduled to appear Tuesday morning as part of a panel on “How technology is reshaping your transportation options.” Google, while it has been working on the device for several years and lobbying for it to be allowed on public streets for testing, has not announced any plans to commercialize the vehicle.

That was from Tuesday. Dallas Transportation, from whom I got the embedded photo, has more including a video. Though Google has successfully lobbied three other states so far to allow their driverless car on the roads there, as of last report there wasn’t a serious effort in Texas to push for an amendment to our laws. Not yet, anyway. The Trib examines that state of affairs.

Google did not seek permission from any local or state agencies before driving its experimental vehicle on Texas roads and highways alongside thousands of other vehicles, the company confirmed. Any other company testing self-driving technology in Texas wouldn’t need to either. Neither Austin nor Texas laws appear to address self-driving technology.

“I don’t think legally there’s any issues of a self-driving car or specific ordinance against a self-driving car,” said Leah Fillion, a spokeswoman for Austin’s transportation department. “It’s kind of a fuzzy area.”

Anthony Levandowski, project manager for Google’s self-driving car research, said the company brought a Lexus hybrid outfitted with its autopilot technology to the Texas Transportation Forum to get elected officials and members of the transportation industry more familiar with the emerging technology.

During a panel discussion Tuesday, Levandowski said the company hoped to have the software on the market within five years.

[…]

Though no Texas or federal laws address such technology being used on the roads, Levandowski said that would and should change.

“We do think it would be great to have the existing transportation code clearly address this technology,” Levandowski said.

The state’s transportation code currently refers only to “a person” operating a vehicle. Levandowski described an updated version as specifying “for a vehicle to operate, it must have a licensed driver inside.”

[…]

State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said he had not considered the issue of self-driving vehicles but that it’s probably something state lawmakers should look at more closely.

“It’s worth a discussion because government is usually reactive instead of proactive,” Pickett said. “The first time [a self-driving car] runs over a fire hydrant or, even worse, a person, there will be a flurry of bills filed.”

If that’s the case, and if Levandowski’s five-year prediction is accurate, we have two, maybe three more legislative sessions after this one to get ready and be proactive. Better start studying up, y’all. Did any of my Austin readers have a chance to see this? Leave a comment if so and let us know. More from Dallas Transportation here.

Driverless cars in Texas

You have perhaps heard the news that Google’s driverless car has been approved for street usage in California; specifically, California Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill that requires the California Department of Motor Vehicles to draft regulations for autonomous vehicles by Jan. 1, 2015. You may be wondering, with varying degrees of wonder or horror, when Texas might do the same. KUT takes a look.

While the prospect of seeing a car with no driver may be terrifying – especially if the car is converging with you at an intersection – robots have some advantages: they don’t get tired, drunk, or distracted by their phones, apply makeup, eat breakfast, or skim text messages. Robot drivers are always on-duty, fully-functioning, and paying attention. (Unless of course they have a software bug, or a system failure, or some wires shake loose.)

But when will the Google car come to Texas? The Texas Department of Transportation says they’re not aware of any plans to put robot drivers on Lone Star roads. The Texas Legislature would have to pass new laws allowing self-driving cars, and it meets next in January.

But the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the primary research center for Texas roadways, tells KUT News its researchers are visiting Google next week to learn more about the self-driving cars. And here in Austin, University of Texas research is focusing on creating not intelligent automobiles, but intelligent intersections that could leave the driving to your car.

Many other states are considering whether or not to put robots on the road.  Auto manufacturers, including BMW, Audi, Cadillac, and Volvo, are working on self-driving technologies. And Ford and Lexus have cars that can park themselves.

Say it with me now: “I for one welcome our robot automotive overlords”. I can’t wait to see the debate on this one in the Legislature. The lobbying effort alone will be worth watching. What do you think about this? Are you looking forward to the day when your car will drive you, or are you convinced this is just another step towards The Matrix? Leave a comment and let me know.