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  • American-Statesman staff
12:00 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017 Business
James Gregg
Jack Bagnulo, 11, and Branson Burton, 6, perform an informal test of the emergency stop function of an autonomous shuttle at the University of Texas during the South By Southwest conference on March 16, 2017 in Austin.

AUTONOMOUS AUSTIN

Tracking Austin’s role in the rise of driverless vehicles: As high-tech and automotive companies head toward a future where driverless vehicles dominate the market, Austin’s tech sector is playing a significant role in that progress.

“Austin should be to automated vehicles what Detroit was to the last century of automakers,” Mayor Steve Adler said earlier this year.

The city has made headway with the aid of local research institutions, private sector interest, partnerships and a city-sponsored mobility report.

In about two years, the city aims to hire an officer to oversee autonomous vehicle initiatives and develop a master plan for the use of autonomous and electric vehicles in Austin.

In two to four years, the city envisions creating programs to help train people for new jobs that will emerge with the evolution of driverless vehicles.

In 2015, Google chose the city to complete what the company says was the world’s first-ever fully self-driving trip without a driver presence.

In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation chose Texas as one of 10 designated regions across the country to test connected and automated vehicle technology.

Chip-making companies that have a large presence in Austin, such as Intel, have also been researching and developing communication tech for autonomous cars. Intel, which says it employs more than 2,300 people in Austin and Plano, as well as roughly 100 interns from UT, has worked with Waymo to develop autonomous vehicles. It’s unclear if any of Intel’s research or development of autonomous vehicle tech took place in Austin. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

NXP Semiconductors, another tech company with a significant Austin presence, also recently announced that it would partner with Baidu Inc. to provide semiconductor products for the self-driving auto industry. NXP Semiconductors has about 5,000 workers in Central Texas, mainly from its 2015 purchase of Austin-based Freescale Semiconductor. (In October 2016, San Diego-based chipmaker Qualcomm announced it planned to purchase NXP, but that deal still has not yet been completed.)

At the South By Southwest conference this past March, Capital Metro tested an autonomous shuttle at UT with international transportation company RATP Dev. About the same time, Audi representatives also test-drove a vehicle with autonomous capabilities in Austin.

Officials say autonomous vehicles could provide solutions to greenhouse gas emissions, congestion and traffic-related deaths.

TEXAS ECONOMY

Texas factory output spikes to 11-year high in December: Texas factory production tends to ebb and flow from one month to the next, but overall output surged throughout 2017 and in December reached its highest point in more than 11 years, according to a report this past week from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

The state production index, a key measure of factory activity statewide, jumped to a reading of 32.8 in December from 15.1 the prior month, according to the monthly Texas Manufacturing Outlook Survey.

The greater, positive figure indicated that manufacturing production in the state expanded at a faster pace this month.

The production index tracks closely with the overall Texas economy, so it provides one of the most current glimpses of broader economic conditions across the state. Texas factories, which produce about 11 percent of the country’s total manufactured goods — second behind only California — have now increased their output for 18 consecutive months.

“This month’s manufacturing report was impressively strong, continuing a trend we’ve seen throughout 2017 of accelerating manufacturing activity in Texas,” Emily Kerr, a Dallas Fed senior business economist, said in a written statement.

Kerr said that roughly half the responding firms expect to increase spending on equipment, machinery and other capital expenditures six months from now, the highest share since 2006.

“Looking ahead,” Kerr said, “comments from survey respondents indicate the tax bill may be a tailwind for manufacturing, while difficulty hiring remains a headwind.”

While several factory managers noted trouble finding qualified workers, according to anonymous comments compiled by the Dallas Fed, manufacturers across the state sharply accelerated their pace of hiring during December. The survey’s measure of employment soared to its highest reading since March 2012.

Other underlying factors, including gauges of new orders, shipments, capacity utilization and wages, all posted strong gains in December.

The potential and eventual completion of a business-friendly tax overhaul appears to have opened the spigot on more orders, according to the comments in the survey.

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