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Records show first responders in Austin struggling to respond to Cruise's self-driving cars

A Cruise self-driving car travels to a passenger pickup on Aug. 10, 2023, in Austin
Michael Minasi
Cruise is pausing self-driving car operations in the United States. Austin has struggled to respond to a wave of complaints from residents and first responders alike.

Austin's first responders grappled with how to manage Cruise's robot cars and their "alarming" behavior, records obtained by KUT show.

An internal reporting system used by Austin firefighters and police describes Cruise cars coming within inches of parked fire trucks, ignoring police directing traffic and — in one instance — almost cutting off an ambulance flashing its lights on the way to Sixth Street. On other occasions, firefighters wrote, Cruise employees struggled to move their own disabled vehicles out of the way of traffic.

After waves of complaints from residents in Austin and elsewhere, Cruise announced Thursday it was suspending self-driving taxi operations nationwide to build "public trust."

Austin's internal reporting system was one of several improvised responses by local officials powerless to regulate an experimental new industry that's using Austin's streets as a laboratory. The Texas Legislature stopped cities from regulating self-driving cars in 2017.

Even though Cruise is voluntarily taking driverless vehicles off Austin's streets, the halt is only temporary. Other self-driving car companies are watching closely.

"We do have a lot of interest in Austin," Rachel Castignoli, a city official monitoring autonomous vehicle companies, said of competing firms.

At least four driverless car companies are testing vehicles in Austin. Cruise, which is mostly owned by General Motors, was the only one without humans behind the wheel, city staff said. Waymo, Volkswagen's ADMT and AV Ride have 25, 10 and 4 vehicles in Austin, respectively, all with test drivers. Cruise had 150 vehicles.

Cruise had so many Chevy Bolts, the company ran out of spaces to charge the battery-powered vehicles. Three large propane generators were brought in on trailers to 4716 East Fifth Street near Springdale Avenue. Cruise could charge two cars on each generator. The Austin Fire Department approved the installation.

But then, last week, Cruise hit the pause button.

Cruise control

The company said it was suspending self-driving car operations nationwide to "reflect on how we can better operate in a way that will earn public trust."

The decision came two days after the California Department of Motor Vehicles declared Cruise's vehicles unsafe and yanked the the company's driverless testing permits. California also prevents cities from regulating self-driving cars.

Cruise emphasized the decision to suspend AV operations "isn't related to any new on-road incidents."

The company already has a substantial list of existing incidents in Austin.

Litany of complaints

Those incidents have been piling up since Cruise began operating driverless cars in Austin last year. Records obtained by KUT show residents calling 311 to say they were almost hit by autonomous vehicles. Others said driverless cars were blocking traffic.

Some residents were just weirded out by gangs of robot cars roaming in packs through their neighborhood.

"I feel like I am being surveilled," a North Lamar resident reported on the 311 mobile app. "Am I?"

A Cruise self-driving car drives through the University of Texas at Austin campus on Aug. 10, 2023
Michael Minasi
Cruise was the only autonomous vehicle company in Austin operating without a human behind the wheel, city officials say.

The city says it has no record of anyone being hurt by an autonomous vehicle in Austin. Cruise says it takes all incidents seriously and argues it has a good track record after more than 5 million driverless miles.

But first responders were increasingly alarmed at the behavior of the driverless vehicles, records obtained under the Texas Public Information Act show.

A recurring concern in their internal reporting system was how close Cruise vehicles would get to fire trucks, sometimes coming within inches and making it hard for the emergency vehicles to maneuver.

"It is very alarming with how close the [Cruise] vehicles are getting," a firefighter wrote on Sept. 2. "The Cruise vehicle's actions are not predictable and there is no mutual communication with them."

Other reported incidents depict time-consuming responses to unusual situations.

On the evening of Saturday, Sept. 30, firefighters responded to a Cruise vehicle stopped in the road and blocking traffic. They looked inside. The screen in the vehicle said a crash had occurred, according to an incident report. But firefighters could only see a broken side mirror. They wanted to move the car off the road.

Cruise had provided training to Austin firefighters on how to get inside the Chevy Bolt and drive the vehicle. But a Cruise employee, speaking to an Austin firefighter remotely, refused to grant them permission. The employee said they couldn't verify the uniformed firefighters were actually firefighters and not civilians.

The Cruise vehicle blocked traffic for 20 minutes until company employees showed up, the report said. Cruise told KUT the car had been attacked by a pedestrian.

"We've since had some dialog with that company, and they've supposedly fixed it," Austin Fire Battalion Chief Matthew Holmes told a panel of City Council members Friday. "Those are the kinds of things we're dealing with."

Earlier in September, Austin firefighters responded to a car crash around 3 a.m. When they arrived, four Cruise employees were already there, an incident report said. Cruise told KUT the empty vehicle had been hit by a driver running a stop sign.

None of the Cruise employees could turn off the car. So firefighters couldn't roll the vehicle out of the intersection. A tow truck was called. Firefighters waited. They left after an hour and a half, the report said.

A lieutenant with the fire station at 506 West Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard even fretted in an internal e-mail that driverless vehicles were presenting an issue for fire trucks leaving the station, because the cars would stop in place when they detected emergency lights.

State preemption law

An aerial view of the Texas State Capitol building
Nathan Bernier
Texas lawmakers voted in 2017 to prevent cities from regulating self-driving cars. The bill passed the Senate unanimously, including with the support of then-State Senator Kirk Watson, who's now Austin's mayor.

Texas cities can't regulate self-driving car companies. In 2017, the Texas Legislature passed a law preventing local officials from making their own rules like requiring companies to register or pay fees.

The bill also set minimum safety standards for self-driving cars operating in Texas. The legislation, Senate Bill 2205, was celebrated by General Motors at the time.

SB 2205 received unanimous support in the Texas Senate, including from then-Sen. Kirk Watson, who's now Austin's mayor.

Watson's office did not respond to a question about the vote.

Some council members' frustrations have become increasingly loud.

"The industry's going to have to do a lot more diligence to get us to a place where these vehicles can safely operate," said Council Member Zo Qadri, whose downtown district has been a hot spot for Cruise complaints. "It's unfortunate that state law doesn't allow us to regulate this unproven technology on our streets."

Austin's mayor pro tem, Paige Ellis, called the issue a matter of "public trust."

"Our public roads should not be a test playground," she said. "We should not be treated like guinea pigs."

Correction: A previous version of this story said Cruise vehicles bumped into firetrucks. In their internal reporting system, firefighters said a Cruise vehicle "nosed into our Engine." But the term "nosed" had been intended to mean the Cruise vehicle got extremely close. Subsequent reporting has revealed there have been no reports of Cruise vehicles coming into contact with firetrucks.

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Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.