Clickability tracking pixel

Q&A: A Tech Exit Interview with California Sen. Alex Padilla

Padilla, who leaves office later this year, takes a look back at the groundwork he laid for building an earthquake early warning system and the legislation that is paving the way for autonomous vehicles to hit the roads.

by / May 13, 2014

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, will leave office later this year after two consecutive terms representing California’s San Fernando Valley in the state Senate. During his tenure, he’s garnered a reputation as one of the most technologically-focused lawmakers in the state, introducing proposals on drone use, telecommunications, genetic data and autonomous vehicles.

In a recent interview with Government Technology, Padilla shared his thoughts on a number of technology issues he’s tackled and those topics he feels the state will have to address in the next few years.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Government Technology: You’ve been very focused on securing funding for the earthquake early warning system, a project that was authorized from legislation you authored last year. Where does that stand?

Alex Padilla: By the vote of the legislature and the signature of the governor, it became a clear priority for the state. But the funding for the system is still something we’re working toward. There’s a year-and-a-half timeframe to find the funding, and as soon as we put that in place, we can move forward with the upgrade of existing demonstration projects.

Editor’s Note: Padilla issued a press release following his interview with Government Technology explaining that it may take private investment to secure the $80 million needed to refine the U.S. Geological Survey’s prototype earthquake early warning system.

GT: What technology-related bills did you introduce during the current legislative session that you believe will have a wide impact on the state if it becomes law?

AP: There’s a bill that just cleared the Senate floor … that asks the University of California system and the California State University system to give guidance to school districts on how to structure high school computer science courses so that they would count toward the admission requirements for state universities.

I know other states that have made a move that the curriculum of a high school computer science class counts toward high school graduation requirements. And there’s an Assembly bill in California to that effect. But I wanted to go a step further and not just have it count toward high school graduation, but meeting the requirements for admission to our state university system.

We know looking at the data that a huge portion of workforce needs going forward in California are technology-related. And half of the technology jobs we’ll need to fill in the next decade will require some level of computer programming training. So it only makes sense to align our education standards to fill the need of our future workforce.

GT: In your years as a California lawmaker, what has been the biggest challenge for you when drafting and discussing technology legislation and policy – and how did you overcome it?

AP: I think the biggest challenge has frankly been how to fit the new technology issues into a government code of old, if you will. Our autonomous vehicle legislation, for example: Whoever wrote the vehicle code way back then never imagined a car that would drive itself. The new ideas don’t necessarily fit into the old code model.

So you’re having to both explain it and then make room for it in state law. When it comes to a colleague, every bill that gets introduced goes through a policy committee, and there’s an analysis that brings up questions for and against and offers amendments on how to improve upon the bill. But more often than not, those analyses call into question whether the bill [fits] with the old way of doing things. So there’s been a lot of technical challenges on that front.

GT: Is there an example of a California statute you’d like modified to make technology innovation easier?

AP: It’s not a particular code or section of a code that says “this vs. that.” It’s the underlying structure of it all. It’s reflective of both outdated technologies, and outdated economies and societies of the past. Whether it’s an earthquake technology bill, autonomous vehicles or drone legislation, we’re frustrating people in our legislative council’s office or really appealing to their intellectual curiosities. We get one of those two reactions when we come up with a new idea.

GT: What do you see as the next big technology policy issue in California?

AP: On a very fundamental level, issues of privacy. One of the bills that didn’t get a lot of attention this year [involves] cars that communicate information. Who owns that information? Does it belong to the manufacturer of the car? Does it belong to the owner of the car? Who has control and access to that?

In this day and age, I don’t think most people really think their car is emanating data about how they’re driving and where they are. So it’s just another example of how pervasive the communications technology is in society, and not just the smartphone in our pocket or every time we browse the Internet or swipe a credit card. In almost every area of our daily lives, we’re disseminating information whether we know it or not.

GT: As you leave office, what’s the one technology-related policy issue or piece of legislation you’ve sponsored that you’re most proud of?

AP: The one I’d have to choose today is the autonomous vehicle legislation. It was symbolic. It got more attention than most of our other technology-related bills. [It serves as] a symbol and merger of technology and public policy, and the stakes were great. But also because it touched on so many other issues that people didn’t anticipate.

We introduced the bill and people think “driverless vehicles,” and the response is, “Oh yeah, if I’m feeling tired or I have too many at the bar, I can get home safely.” The ramifications on easing congestion is not something that most people think about. But autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to help in a significant manner, even in raw planning and land use.

What if you didn’t have to accommodate a parking lot or parking structure for every shopping mall and office building? You can really define how we use our space, particularly in urban areas. You could be dropped off at the front door, the car would go park itself and come back and get you when you’re ready. So it wasn’t really a transportation safety bill. That was a big motivator behind it. But it also can impact traffic congestion, planning, land use and even air quality because a car that is autonomous can probably run more efficiently and reduce emissions in the process.

But I’m hoping in 10 or 20 years, the answer is the early earthquake alert system. I can’t point to it yet because it hasn’t been fully deployed. But if by the next “big one” it’s in place and Californians get a significant enough advanced warning to better protect ourselves and reduce or eliminate the fatalities associated with the next earthquake, that’s the one in the future that will give me the most satisfaction.

Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs