Texas paves the way for automated vehicles

With the enactment earlier this year of SB 2205 by Hancock and HB 1791 by Pickett, Texas joined 20 other states that expressly regulate automated vehicles. Until then, Texas law had not addressed automated vehicles directly, leaving it ambiguous how certain laws referencing vehicle operators applied.

Federal governance is limited to non-regulatory guidance, although the U.S. House of Representatives in September passed a bill, currently pending in the Senate, that would require federal rules on safety and data security and would preempt state regulations on automated vehicle design.

All vehicles generally are classified into one of five or six levels of automation, from level zero, which includes vehicles without features such as cruise control or traction control, to levels four or five, which allow for no human involvement beyond instructing the car where to go.

HB 1791, effective May 18, removed barriers to the use of connected braking systems, also known as truck platooning, which falls into levels one and two of automation. Trucks form platoons by falling into a line on a highway. Connected braking technology then electronically coordinates with the truck in the front of the line to change the speed of the trucks in the platoon, enabling the safe following distance to be reduced and increasing fuel economy as the trucks draft behind one another.

A more broadly applicable bill on automated driving systems, SB 2205, effective Sept. 1, explicitly allows vehicles with the highest level of automation to use highways with or without a human driver if the car is compliant with traffic laws and with insurance and registration requirements and if it can record certain data, including location, velocity, and braking and steering performance. Vehicles at the highest level of automation are, for the most part, governed exclusively by SB 2205 and exempt from certain other laws, including local laws specific to automated vehicles.

Under the new bill, the owner of an automated driving system is responsible for violations of any traffic laws, whether or not the owner was physically present in the vehicle at the time of the violation.

Supporters of SB 2205 say the bill provides manufacturers the regulatory certainty needed to test automated vehicles on Texas roads and preserves public safety. They say it will help manufacturers develop the technology with a full understanding of regulatory obligations while avoiding onerous or detrimental requirements that would inhibit the technology as it develops. Automated vehicles have proven thus far to be safer than traditional cars and should become even safer as the technology evolves.

Critics of SB 2205 say the bill leaves many questions unanswered and should have been more expansive to provide clarity to state agencies, insurance companies, and regulators. While the bill clarifies that the driver of the vehicle is considered to be the owner of the automated driving system, it also should have addressed civil liability and data security. For instance, it could have increased the required liability limit for insurance coverage on automated vehicles beyond that required of ordinary cars or implemented penalties for hacking automated vehicles with the intent to harm.

by Anthony Severin

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