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Cruise expands driverless rideshare services in Austin, but not everyone is on board

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Less than a year ago, General Motors’ Cruise announced it would bring “robotaxi” technology to Austin in the form of driverless rideshare services. Now, Cruise is expanding its Austin services, moving beyond strictly testing in the Texas capital.

A Cruise spokesperson confirmed Monday the company is beginning to on-board residents who joined Cruise’s rideshare waitlist. Rides are offered between the hours of 8 p.m. and 5:30 a.m.

“Right now we’re focused on our downtown Austin service and are slowly expanding that area,” a Cruise spokesperson said in an email. “As with everything we do, we start small to ensure safety as we scale.”

Why are so many autonomous vehicle companies testing in Austin?

Cruise isn’t the only autonomous vehicle company to set up operations in Austin. Waymo announced in April it would begin testing its fifth-generation driver, called the Jaguar I-Pace, in central and east Austin. Some of those pilot testing locations included the downtown corridor, along Rainey Street, within the Market District, near the Texas State Capitol and in the Clarksville, Bouldin Creek and Holly neighborhoods.

“Austin is a very vibrant place with lots of pedestrian traffic, etcetera that shares a lot of similarities with downtown Phoenix and downtown San Francisco, where we can both get the confirmation of the similarities but also call out any nuances or differences,” Nathaniel Fairfield, distinguished software engineer with Waymo, told KXAN in April.

Previous operations in Austin include Ford’s now-disbanded Argo AI. On the delivery services forefront, Chick-fil-A rolled out self-driving delivery robots in 2022, while California-based company Coco launched its delivery robots in Austin that same year.

Some residents share concerns with driverless vehicle technology

But not everyone is thrilled with the emerging driverless technology. Raina Hornaday, a resident of the Pemberton Heights neighborhood, told KXAN the technology has been “disruptive” near her home since the cars first began driving through the neighborhood back in May.

“It’s just disruption of quiet — whatever semblance we have of quiet enjoyment in Austin, and having a neighborhood feel,” she said.

Hornaday said her concerns center around the discernment these vehicles have to make split-second decisions, such as if a neighborhood child or pet were to run into the roadway. She said vehicles driving through her neighborhood frequently have their blinkers left on and operate as if they’re programmed for the speed limit, despite it being a highly residential area.

Elsewhere in Austin, some driverless Cruise vehicles have impeded traffic by stopping in through lanes, blocking other cars. Company officials said these vehicles stopped as a safety measure, adding the company is collecting live data from the vehicle to help track situations and “minimize how often this happens.”

 “Within our dedicated team who continuously monitor and assist our driverless fleet, our Remote Assistance (RA) advisors are available in instances when the AV needs help navigating a situation. RA advisors have access to live data from the vehicle and by connecting remotely to the vehicle, they can suggest a pathway that allows the vehicle to proceed. We’re working to minimize how often this happens, but it is and will remain one aspect of our overall safety operations.

Cruise spokesperson

Who’s responsible for regulating autonomous vehicles in Texas cities?

While the Austin Transportation and Public Works Department assist autonomous vehicle companies coming to the Texas capital, driverless vehicle regulation ultimately falls under state leadership.

“The City has worked with autonomous vehicle companies in the past as they enter the Austin market to offer staff’s knowledge on the local transportation network, but the City does not oversee or regulate AVs,” a city spokesperson said.

With the expansion of driverless technology in Austin and beyond, it remains to be seen the possible legal avenues that could come from any crashes or incidents involving these vehicles.

“The City has worked with autonomous vehicle companies in the past as they enter the Austin market to offer staff’s knowledge on the local transportation network, but the City does not oversee or regulate AVs,” a city spokesperson said.

“If the car was on autopilot and essentially ‘driverless’ at the time of a crash, the driver may not have been negligent,” the firm wrote. “Instead, the cause of the crash may have been a defect in the vehicle. It follows that liability would fall on the manufacturer of the vehicle.”

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