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Austinites are complaining about robot cars. The city can't do anything to regulate them.

A Cruise self-driving car, designated "Cookie," drives through the University of Texas at Austin campus on Aug. 10.
Michael Minasi
A Cruise self-driving car, called "Cookie," drives through the UT Austin campus last month.

Autonomous vehicles have been in Austin for years, but a recent uptick in the cars across the city has led to an uptick in complaints.

The city says its hands are tied when it comes to regulating the new technology. In a memo last week, the Austin Transportation and Public Works Department said it's constrained by state law.

“Simply put," the memo said, "Texas cities cannot regulate autonomous vehicles."

A state law passed in 2017 paved the way for the robot cars.

You’ve probably noticed a lot more of them this past year. San Francisco-based Cruise boosted its fleet of cars in Austin. Volkswagen and Waymo — the first autonomous vehicle operator in Austin back in 2015 — also expanded their presence here.

But with the increase of AVs, concerns about traffic safety — and consent from Austinites who didn’t ask to be part of this large-scale experiment — have arisen.

Austin Transportation and Public Works said it's working with companies on issues that have been documented in viral videos of the cars blocking traffic and malfunctioning.

The department wouldn’t provide anyone to speak with KUT, but it did provide a look at the complaints filed against AV operators. They range from minor annoyances — like blocking the Moody Center after a concert — to major concerns — like interfering with emergency services. Cruise is the only company identified in the complaints.

Navideh Forghani, a Cruise spokesperson, said the company was working with neighborhoods to reduce congestion and providing trainings for emergency responders who encounter issues with the vehicles.

"While our work is never done, our technology is designed to keep our riders and communities safe," Forghani said in a statement. "We take the concerns voiced by Austin residents seriously, and frequently brief first responders on incidents or interactions."

One resident wrote their Austin City Council member and said they saw a car "make a right turn across three lanes of traffic" and that the vehicles "clearly weren't ready" to be on public roads.

"It is only a matter of time until one of them runs over a pedestrian or a cyclist," the resident said. "I don't know why these companies have been allowed to freely use Austin as the testing ground for their experimental technology but I am asking you to stop it."

Police, fire and EMS personnel have also documented issues with the vehicles.

An Austin police officer said a vehicle collided with a parked car on Milam Place in Travis Heights. Cruise said it reached out to the owner to pay for repairs to the vehicle.

A firefighter reported the department responded to a crash in which a Cruise bus ran into a building near 12th Street and Lamar Boulevard. The firefighter said they witnessed representatives for Cruise trying to move the bus via a computer, but they couldn't.

“[It] did not have a steering wheel or a place for a driver — and therefore no way for emergency personnel to quickly move it," the complaint said.

Cruise said the vehicle had malfunctioned and that technicians had put the vehicle out of park, when it rolled into the structure at 6 mph.

Another complaint said an EMS unit on a call on Sixth Street was also nearly hit twice by a Cruise vehicle in July. Cruise pushed back on that complaint, however, saying the AV was making a left turn to avoid the scene and came to a stop 4 feet away from the ambulance before rerouting.

State law requires any provider to report accidents and incidents with local authorities, and vehicles must be registered.

Austin isn't the only city struggling to regulate AVs. San Francisco, in particular, has seen a wave of protests in recent months against the vehicles, with pedestrians putting parking cones on the hoods of cars to scramble their sensors.

Transportation and Public Works said its task force on AVs has reached out to counterparts in San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Phoenix for advice on rolling out the vehicles and public safety policies.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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