If self-driving cars are a measure of the future, then the future is already here in Texas. Self-driving cars started hitting the roads in the Lone Star State in 2015, and have been introduced to cities around the state ever since.
Google Waymo started testing autonomous vehicles on Austin roads four years ago. Two years later, Texas passed its first set of laws governing self-driving cars. There were no specific restrictions on them before, but as the U.S. Department of Transportation began choosing spots in Texas for experimentation sites it seemed prudent to lay out that all vehicles must follow the same set of regulations as manned vehicles and carry insurance. Self-driving car companies are also liable for broken laws or damages. Texas is one of 18 states that have passed such laws.
Drive.ai has been running four self-driving vans in Arlington. The company previously tried the program in Frisco as a means of public transportation. Although some 5,000 unique riders took advantage of the service, Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney publicly said that the program was not ultimately a good use of taxpayer money.
Though based in Silicon Valley, Drive.ai chose Texas to try out their vans, partly because the 2017 law indicated enthusiasm for the future of autonomous vehicle services.
Just as Uber and Lyft changed the way Texans get around without owning a vehicle, the driverless car seems to open up new possibilities for other services. Two Houston Kroger stores began delivering groceries with them this year. Cheap, effective and fast grocery delivery can be a godsend to the disabled or people who can’t get to the store.
Colleges are also getting in on the act. TSU debuted their first driverless shuttles along Tiger Walk this summer. Operating in part with federal grant money, the six-seat vans cover a one-mile stretch and currently have an operator in the vehicle at all times. The vans are being evaluated on how well they handle the routes, with an eye towards expansion.
Texas A&M’s self-driving car program recently moved its operators out of the physical cars and into remote piloting, using teleoperation technology from Portland, Ore. company Designated Driver.
With the rise of safe remote piloting, possible job loss to autonomous vehicles is an expanding concern. Traditionally, trucking has been an industry where people who can’t afford a college degree can earn a living wage, and some Texas truck drivers earn up to $80,000 a year.
Losing trucking jobs to robotic, or remote, operators could cause unforeseen economic hardships for Texas workers. Dallas and Houston alone employ nearly 100,000 people as drivers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
However, companies may have no choice but to go self-driving. The trucking industry is facing a shortage of nearly roughly 60,000 drivers nationwide, part of a two-decade trend.
The Texas oil fields in particular are hurting for drivers, but even as the industry pays better and works to boost its recruitment of the young, minorities and women, simply finding drivers remains difficult because of the long hours and reports of physical toll.
Perhaps the self-driving car industry can change that, but if the slow-going on college campuses and North Texas suburbs are any indication, it will be a long time coming despite initial enthusiasm.