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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.

Texas to get VW settlement money

It’s something.

Volkswagen has agreed to pay Texas $50 million in connection with the German automaker’s admitted peddling of diesel vehicles rigged to surpass emissions limits, Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Tuesday.

The partial settlement is part of a larger, multibillion-dollar agreement unveiled Tuesday that awards hundreds of millions of dollars to dozens of states and includes a $10 billion buy-back program to compensate consumers who bought the vehicles. Various media reports described it as the largest auto-related class-action settlement in U.S. history.

[…]

Paxton sued Volkswagen Group of America Inc. and parent company Audi of America in October in connection with the automaker’s admitted use of software that allowed its diesel vehicles to circumvent emissions limits. The lawsuits alleged violations of the state’s consumer protection laws and clean air standards. They were among hundreds filed in the United States against VW by governments and consumers.

As part of the settlements announced Tuesday, VW agreed to pay Texas $50 million in civil penalties and attorneys’ fees for its violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, which bans false advertising and sale of misrepresented products. About 32,000 diesel cars capable of emissions cheating have been sold in Texas, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures. That’s compared to about 480,000 nationwide and 11 million globally.

“For years, Volkswagen intentionally misled consumers about the environmental and performance qualities of the vehicles they sold in Texas,” Paxton said in a statement. “When companies willfully violate the public’s trust, we will hold these entities responsible. This settlement will both compensate the victims of Volkswagen’s fraud and punish the company enough to deter future fraud.”

He noted Texas has not yet resolved claims that VW violated state clean air laws, and that Texas continues to pursue related penalties. A Paxton spokeswoman would not say how much those might amount to.

See here for the background on the Texas lawsuit, and here and here for more about the national case. It’s nice to see the AG’s office on the side of a worthwhile case for once, though honestly this was as close to free money as it gets. I mean, the initial suits were filed less than a year ago. VW had basically admitted fault, and they clearly wanted this to go away. Good on them for that, but boy do they still have a lot to atone for.

And they’re not out of legal trouble just yet:

Several local governments in Texas, including Harris County, have also sued VW — over objections from Paxton — but they were not included in the settlements announced Tuesday. The Harris County lawsuit is pending in Travis County district court.

See here and here for the background on that. I presume Paxton didn’t do anything beyond send a letter to the relevant county attorneys asking them to back off; if he did, I couldn’t find any mention of it. It seems likely to me that with the big settlement out of the way, these others will soon follow, but we’ll see.

Paxton wants to sue VW all by himself

Really?

Seeking to fight scandal-plagued Volkswagen alone, Attorney General Ken Paxton is asking two Texas counties to halt their lawsuits against the automaker — a move highlighting friction between Texas and local governments pursuing tens of millions of dollars in court.

The Republican made the request in letters sent Friday to top attorneys in Harris and Fort Bend counties, both of which beat Paxton to the punch in filing lawsuits over the company’s admitted use of software that allowed its vehicles to sidestep emissions limits.

“The alleged violations by VW harm Texans throughout the state, and a separate Harris County lawsuit undermines the ability to achieve a comprehensive and just statewide resolution of this matter on behalf of Texas,” Paxton wrote in a letter to Vince Ryan, the Harris County attorney. “The Office of the Attorney General requests that the county stand down on its claims and cooperate with the Office of the Attorney General in pursuing the state’s interests – which includes Harris County’s interests – on matters arising from VW’s wrongful conduct.”

Paxton used similar language in a letter to Fort Bend County Attorney Roy Cordes, Jr.

Paxton wrote that both counties failed to communicate with his office before filing their suits, and he knocked them for hiring outside legal help, saying the move “appears to be an unnecessary expense.” The Texas Tribune obtained unsigned copies of both letters.

By abandoning their lawsuits, the counties would leave millions of dollars in potential winnings on the table.

“Harris County, Texas wants a place at the table. That’s why we’re first in line and the first government in the world to sue Volkswagen,” said Terry O’Rourke, special counsel with the Harris County attorney’s office. O’Rourke had not yet seen Paxton’s letter.

“We’ll look at whatever General Paxton’s request is and evaluate it with sincerity,” he added.

In Fort Bend, Randy Morse, the assistant county attorney, said his office could not comment because it had yet to receive the letter.

[…]

Last week, the city of Dallas announced it planned to sue Volkswagen, but it reversed course on Monday, saying Paxton’s statewide suit would do the trick.

“We look forward to the state taking action in the upcoming months to require Volkswagen and Audi to bring the affected vehicles into compliance with state environmental laws and improve air quality in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and we urge the state to do so in an expeditious manner and at no cost to affected motorists,” the city said in a statement.

See here and here for the background. Personally, I don’t know that I would trust the state to look after my own interests as well as I would in a case like this. Pursuing environmental justice is not exactly one of Ken Paxton’s strong points. If I were in those County Attorneys’ shoes, my reply would be to suggest that Paxton file a brief with the judge in my case stating his position, and let the judge decide the best course of action from there. The Press and the Chron have more.

State of Texas sues VW

Bandwagon time!

Following in the footsteps of Harris County and the city of Dallas, the state announced Thursday it is suing Volkswagen in connection with the German automaker’s admitted use of software that allowed its vehicles to circumvent emissions limits.

Attorney General Ken Paxton announced two separate lawsuits against Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. and subsidiary Audi of America, alleging violations of the state’s consumer protection laws and clean air standards.

“The lawsuits allege the companies misled Texas consumers by marketing and selling diesel vehicles as ‘clean’ while knowing that these vehicles were designed to meet emission standards only when being tested,” a news release said. “Outside of the testing station they would emit up to 40 times the allowable standard for certain pollutants.”

About 32,000 diesel cars capable of emissions cheating have been sold in Texas, the release said, citing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures. That’s compared to about 480,000 nationwide and 11 million globally.

“For years, Volkswagen intentionally misled consumers about the environmental and performance qualities of the vehicles they sold in Texas,” Paxton said in a statement. “When companies willfully violate the public’s trust, a penalty must be paid, and we will hold these entities responsible.”

See here for the background. Again, I don’t know why any government entity wouldn’t file suit against VW. They’ve already admitted liability – this is as close to a slam dunk as it gets in civil litigation. How long it takes and how much you ultimately get are open questions, but the winning and losing part isn’t. And hey, now we know what it takes to get Texas to enforce environmental standards. It’s a win all around!

County sues VW for $100 million

Good.

Vince Ryan

Vince Ryan

Harris County on Tuesday set in motion a $100 million environmental lawsuit against Volkswagen, claiming emissions from 6,000 diesel cars circulating on roadways in the region have caused harm to the population. County Attorney Vince Ryan said his review of filings indicated this could be the first government suit against the car company since the executives admitted to cheating on emissions monitoring in diesel cars released since 2009.

Commissioners Court approved the suit Tuesday morning and hired three law firms to handle the matter on a contingency basis. The county plans to file the suit Tuesday afternoon, according to Robert Soard, first assistant county attorney.

The county does not have Volkswagens in its central fleet, according to Dre Dupont, who oversees the vehicles. Instead, the focus of this suit will be on the extent to which the car company and its affiliates violated Texas emissions standards, creating a public health hazard for everyone within the borders of Harris County.

The Press is pretty snarky about this, but as Judge Emmett noted in the Chron story, VW has already admitted liability. Why wouldn’t we sue? I don’t know what the likelihood is of collecting a substantial sum, and it may be that our suit gets consolidated with the many others already out there, but VW deserves all the trouble it’s going to get. Good for Vince Ryan for taking the initiative.