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Cookie, take the wheel! What’s with all the driverless cars zooming around Austin?

A white car with a red stripe and the name "cruise" on the side at an intersection.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
A Cruise self-driving car named "Cookie" travels to pick up a passenger on the UT Austin campus on Thursday.

Imagine using a ride-hailing app to get a lift in Central Austin and seeing a white car with black and red accents pull up. You get in the back seat and notice the driver's seat is empty. Suddenly, the steering wheel begins moving on its own, and the car takes off.

A fleet of these self-driving cars has been giving rides to passengers in certain Austin neighborhoods these days. Cruise launched its hailing app in December after wrapping up testing.

North Austin resident Keaton Peters said he saw several Cruise cars recently when he was on his way to a gig at Hole in the Wall on Guadalupe Street.

“I looked up and I realized there’s eight cars stopped at this intersection, and four of them are Cruise cars,” Peters said. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot.’”

Cruise cars use sensors that include cameras, radar and light detection, and ranging systems to provide data to the artificial intelligence controlling them. This AI predicts what’s happening on the roads and the behavior of surrounding cars and pedestrians.

KUT multimedia producer Michael Minasi said during a ride Thursday night, his Cruise (named "Cookie") successfully avoided a parked car and warned him to watch out for cyclists when dropping him off by a bike lane. After his ride, he watched the car stop midturn to wait for a pedestrian crossing the street.

The dashboard and steering wheel of a car
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Cruise cars rely on cameras, radar and light detection to navigate streets without a driver.

Autonomous car technology has “been a long time coming,” Peter Stone, a computer science professor and robotics director at UT Austin, said. “There’s a lot of incentives for rolling out autonomous cars. In principle, they could be much, much safer than the human drivers.”

You can request a ride for a Cruise in a limited area in Austin through the company's ride-hailing app. Similar to an Uber, fares are determined by the estimated time and distance of a route. Spokeswoman Anna Hauss said the cars are available only at night right now to help passengers who don't like driving in the dark or who are concerned about drunk drivers. The company said it is starting small, but plans to expand.

Strange behavior reported

Drivers and cyclists have tweeted videos of the cars exhibiting strange behavior, however. Some videos show the cars just stopped in the middle of a road or at intersections with their hazards on.

Cyclist Robert Foster said he saw a Cruise car making a wide left turn and ending up in the bike lane for about 100 meters. At first, he said he wondered if the car was being driven by a human. That was not the case.

“I stood at that intersection and watched half a dozen [Cruise] cars come by and do the exact same thing,” he said.

Cruise riders can report issues like a car driving in a bike lane, and the company says it will look into it.

“We review the footage, we review the data that came in from that vehicle, and we adjust trips accordingly.” Mike Staples, the general manager of Cruise for Austin, said.

Stone compares this to testing robots in the hallways of UT's engineering buildings. Robots will wheel around for hours with a student following, making note of any disruptions or mistakes the robots run into. The code is then tweaked and edited, and the robot is sent back into the hallway for further testing.

“Whenever you’re deploying robots, it’s easy to get to a system that’s reliable 99% of the time, but 1% is still a big amount of time for unreliability,” Stone said. “There are rare events that you don’t expect to have happen, and the only way you’re going to be able to check whether your code works in these rare events is to actually experience them.”

Cruise cars are coded to default to the safest possible action — even if that sometimes means stopping in the middle of a road with hazards flashing when a danger is detected.

That happened recently on 24th Street, Foster said.

“There was traffic backed up multiple blocks,” he said. “There was really no way for anyone to get around or to get past it.”

Staples said the company has not heard much about that specific issue. However, he said, when a Cruise car does stop, there are multiple ways of starting it back up.

“Not only do I have a physical team on the ground in Austin, we have a 24/7 team that’s around the country as well that are going to be monitoring these vehicles and monitoring these trips,” he said. “When an issue comes up, they’re going to be online in seconds understanding what’s going on with that specific vehicle on that specific trip.”

'Prime time' in San Francisco

Cruise began testing the cars in San Francisco in 2020 and is now offering a ride-hailing service there. The cars have had their fair share of issues — including dropping off and picking up passengers in traffic lanes.

On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission voted to let self-driving cars, including Cruise, expand their services within the city. NPR reported that before the vote there were six hours of public testimony, including reports from first responders that self-driving vehicles got in the way of 55 rescue operations. Residents also weighed in, quoting the fire chief, who had said the cars were "not ready for prime time."

The companies argued driverless vehicles are actually safer than human-driven ones.

Foster said he would feel more comfortable with Cruise cars if there were a safety engineer in the passenger seat. Humans were removed after the testing phase.

“I would definitely feel much safer if there was a human in the car, at the very least to just handle some of the intersection issues and take over as needed,” he said. “I wish they had someone who was paying closer attention to them to tell it all like, ‘Hey, you just passed that bicyclist really close.’”

Stone said if a self-driving car makes you nervous, you should exercise a little more caution.

“Maybe treat it the same way you would treat a car that has a sticker that says, ‘Student driver,’” he said.

Mia Abbe is a digital intern at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at mabbe@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @miaabbe.
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