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Self-driving car company Cruise aims to launch in Austin by end of year

Cruise's self-driving car makes its way through San Francisco streets.
Courtesy of Cruise
Cruise's self-driving car makes its way through San Francisco streets.

Cruise, a self-driving car company, plans to start offering driverless rides in Austin by the end of the year.

Drivers might find themselves pulling up next to a tech-laden car maneuvering by itself more often as the city becomes a center for this kind of vehicle. Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, joins several other companies, including Lyft and Argo AI, that offer this self-driving car service in Austin.

Cruise currently has a fleet of 75 autonomous Chevy Bolts in San Francisco driving around from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., offering rides to people on a waitlist. Cruise Vice President Megan Prichard said the service will function in a similar manner in Austin and she anticipates the company will be able to scale up to a similar number of vehicles.

“San Francisco is crazy — you've got all sorts of pedestrians, bikes, jugglers, roller skate parties,” Prichard said. "It's a very complex environment. We're able to build a very repeatable platform for our service. And so as we're looking around at cities, beyond just being awesome, Austin is a great place for us to pick up that technology and bring it."

Unlike in California, Cruise does not have to obtain a special permit to operate driverless cars in Texas, which is part of what attracts so many companies to the city. A law regulating self-driving cars, which passed in 2017, holds the owners or the company liable for any damages the cars might cause and requires the cars to have dashboard cameras.

The company is currently mapping the streets of Austin and will soon start testing the vehicles. The software will run simulations based on mapped models, and the cars will navigate around the streets with safety drivers monitoring from behind the wheel.

Prichard expects the cars to be street-ready for customers after this process, which she said will likely be by the end of the year or early 2023. Despite this testing protocol, Prichard said many people still distrust the technology. She said the best way to overcome this fear is to get people to just take a ride.

“I recently took my mother-in-law on a ride, and she's in her 70s, and she's like clinging on to the seatbelt,” Prichard said. “She sees the car just pull out into traffic, make a really confident left turn, and then she's just completely calm. She's taking videos, taking pictures, sending them to all of her friends, which is what we see from most people.”

A collaboration between Lyft, Argo AI and Ford Motor Company already operates limited-service driverless cars in Austin. Lyft users can select a driverless car using the Lyft app. With this new company joining the fleets, the race is on to see who can dominate the market for self-driving cars.

Correction: This story has been corrected to say Lyft users can now select a driverless car on the app; there is not a waitlist.

Laura Morales is a new part-time general reporter. She has reported in Texas for five years with several publications including the Texas Observer, the Austin American-Statesman and the San Antonio Report. She graduated from the University of Texas in Government and Journalism.
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