Texas should take a cautious approach to self-driving cars and trucks

Texas should take a cautious approach to self-driving cars and trucks

Texas should take a cautious approach to self-driving cars and trucks.

Tesla recall and Cruise’s fiasco with robotaxis should be a warning sign.

After a number of mishaps nationwide involving autonomous vehicles, Texas would be wise to restrict the real-world testing needed for the technology, because that testing puts Texas drivers at risk, writes Amy Witherite. Pictured is a Cruise AV, the foundation of an autonomous taxi service in San Francisco that was recently shuttered by the California Department of Motor Vehicles.(Paul Sancya / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Despite a growing list of problems, Texas cities cannot regulate self-driving cars or trucks in their communities. One major company has just announced it will be sending autonomous trucks to terminals in Dallas and Houston next year.

In addition, Tesla is recalling all 2 million of its cars nationwide to limit the use of its autopilot feature following a two-year probe by federal safety regulators of roughly 1,000 crashes in which the feature was engaged.

According to the publication Transport Topics, “The North Texas area has quietly become the new frontier for the development of self-driving trucks, with several companies from around the world setting up operations — and using North Texas highways for real-world testing.”

If the past is prologue, real-world testing could put lives and property in danger and make Texas roads even less safe. According to media reports, Austin has received more than 40 complaints related to driverless cars since July.

An internal reporting system used by Austin firefighters and police describes Cruise cars bumping into parked fire trucks, ignoring police directing traffic, and in one instance almost cutting off an ambulance with its emergency lights activated. Meanwhile, consumer distrust of fully self-driving vehicles remains high.

A survey by the American Automobile Association found nearly 70% of those surveyed are fearful or unsure of self-driving technology in cars, This is a 13% jump from last year’s survey and the biggest increase since 2020. AAA testing also found that active driving assistance systems failed to maintain lane position in real-world conditions consistently and had other challenges in closed-course testing.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles recently shut down the problem-plagued Cruise autonomous taxis in San Francisco, saying they were an “unreasonable risk to the public” and that the company misrepresented how safe they are. In October, Cruise ceased its testing operations of robotaxis in Dallas and other cities.

In 2017, Texas passed Senate Bill 2205, which explicitly allows for the operation of an automated motor vehicle on Texas roads, regardless of whether a licensed human operator is physically present in the vehicle. The bill assigns exclusive governance to the Department of Public Safety and explicitly preempts other political subdivisions or agencies from regulating the operation of automated motor vehicles.

Anyone who has ever experienced the so-called blue screen of death on their computer understands that computers and sensors that control autonomous vehicles can fail. Even something as simple as placing a sticker on a sign can confuse sensors, and there has been a high-profile case where an autonomous vehicle did not recognize a giant tractor-trailer truck crossing a highway, leading to a fatality. It is inappropriate and dangerous to be testing autonomous trucks weighing 80,000 pounds in high-traffic areas such as Interstates 45 and 35 in Texas.

That makes the other drivers and passengers on the road guinea pigs to help test unproven technology.

The situation will become even more critical in the coming months when 80,000-pound tractor-trailers begin sharing the road without a driver behind the wheel. There is clear evidence this technology has not been perfected, and there is little or no data on the safety of self-driving cars and trucks. With real-world testing, innocent drivers and passengers may well pay the price. Texas state regulators should be prepared to act quickly if we see continued evidence that autonomous vehicles pose a real danger on the road.

Amy Witherite, founder of the Witherite Law Group, is board-certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and is a recognized expert on legal issues involving the trucking and transportation industry.

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