AUSTIN, Texas — After the autonomous vehicle company Cruise announced it was suspending operations to “better operate in a way that will earn public trust,” Austin city leaders were briefed on the state of autonomous vehicles in the city.
The State of Texas government code, however, sharply turns authority to regulate self-driving cars to the state government, not local officials. According to the state’s transportation code, “A political subdivision of this state or a state agency may not impose a franchise or other regulation related to the operation of an automated motor vehicle or automated driving system.”
That means the Austin City Council, whose mobility committee has been looking into autonomous vehicles, or AVs, for several weeks now, effectively cannot oversee the operations of autonomous vehicles without state intervention.
“Most of the leverage we have at the City of Austin is just nicely asking for them to include us in the conversations,” Council Member and Mayor Pro Tempore Paige Ellis told CBS Austin. “I think there’s way too much at stake here for that to be the only way to communicate.”
One of the most prominent AV companies, Cruise, announced it was suspending operations, including in Texas, on Thursday. Days earlier, the State of California suspended Cruise’s license to operate following an incident in San Francisco in which a pedestrian was ultimately struck by a Cruise car and dragged some 20 feet.
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“The most important thing for us right now is to take steps to rebuild public trust. Part of this involves taking a hard look inwards and at how we do work at Cruise, even if it means doing things that are uncomfortable or difficult,” Cruise wrote in a statement shared on social media. “This isn’t related to any new on-road incidents, and supervised AV operations will continue. We think it’s the right thing to do during a period when we need to be extra vigilant when it comes to risk, relentlessly focused on safety, & taking steps to rebuild public trust.”
Cruise operates some 150 self-driving cars in Austin, according to numbers from the Austin City Government. Though that’s by far the most, that’s not the only AV operator in Austin: Waymo, ADMT (Volkswagen), and AV Ride each operate several self-driving cars, according to the city, but each of those companies allegedly includes test drivers.
In the briefing for the Austin City Council’s mobility committee on Friday, council members expressed concerns with the state-level supervision, rather than local oversight, of autonomous vehicles. Council Member Zo Qadri said he hoped the legislature would consider amending the transportation code, while Council Member Vanessa Fuentes criticized the state for superseding local control, seeming to refer to the recently-enacted House Bill 2127, known as the “Death Star Bill” by critics.
That policy turns over many local ordinances to state control, though that does not include the transportation code. Still, when it comes to AVs, the state transportation code expressly limits the authority of regulating autonomous vehicles to the state government, effectively tying the city government’s hands behind its back from regulating companies like Cruise.