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GM's Cruise is operating self

Oct 13, 2023

Autonomous cars are in more areas of Austin, as self-driving car company Cruise quietly expands its rideshare coverage area.

San Francisco-based Cruise, which is owned by General Motors, first announced it would start operating in Austin in September 2022 and began offering fully autonomous rideshare services in December, offering rides in central and downtown Austin with plans to expand over time.

The company confirmed to the American-Statesman that it expanded into parts of East Austin around the middle of August. In a statement, a company spokesperson said extending to East Austin is a typical expansion for the company, and said the company plans to continue to grow its service areas.

“If you look at our most mature market, San Francisco, you’ll see that we start small and expand with safety as our North Star with each of our expansions,” the spokesperson said.

In the Cruise app, when compared to a map from earlier this summer, the current service areas show new areas including Cherrywood, parts of East Sixth, and some more northern neighborhoods in East Austin.

Cruise's website notes that some users may have "different levels of access" and could have different maps as a result. On Reddit, at least one user posted they have an even wider map that includes parts of Travis Heights and South Congress.

Cruise did not specify how many people in Austin are using the service but said Cruise gives thousands of rides each week across Austin, Phoenix and San Francisco.

Cruise's rideshare operates similarly to other rideshare services such as Uber or Lyft. Users have an app where they are able to request a ride and pickup and drop off at specific locations. People interested in using the rideshare are able to sign up for the waitlist on Cruise's website, and once accepted are able to take rideshare in select areas of Austin between 9pm and 5am.

The company's rideshare fleet is made up of Chevy Bolt electric vehicles that have been retrofitted with sensors, cameras, radar, and lidar that allow the vehicles to operate autonomously, according to the company. Cruise is also testing a completely pedal-less, driverless vehicle called an Origin in Austin, but is not yet offering rideshare in that vehicle.

Under a state law that passed in 2017, autonomous vehicles can operate without a driver inside, and can be used on highways as long as they can follow traffic laws, have insurance like other cars and are equipped with video recording equipment. Manufacturers are also considered responsible for any collisions or broken traffic laws.

The expansion comes as the company makes headlines nationally, with high profile incidents and expansions. This week, Cruise announced that it is expanding to a number of cities including Seattle, San Diego, Miami, Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. The company also announced last month that it expanded to Dallas and Houston.

Cruise is expected to hear back soon from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on its petition to deploy up to 2,500 self-driving cars annually with no human controls or steering wheels. Federally, lawmakers in the House Energy and Commerce Committee have discussed self-driving cars in recent months, including debating how to best regulate the growing industry while staying competitive with China.

But the expansions have not come without issues.

Last week, California's Department of Motor Vehicles asked General Motors to scale back and "immediately" remove some of its vehicles in San Francisco following two collisions, one of which was with an active fire truck. In a separate San Francisco incident in August, a Cruise vehicle drove into a contruction area with wet cement. The request came just weeks after the company was given permission to charge money for rideshare trips in San Francisco during the day, rather than just at night.

In Austin, several videos have gone viral of Cruise vehicles stuck in the middle of the street and have drawn concerns. Similar incidents have been reported in San Francisco, and some activists in the Bay Area have taken to putting traffic cones on driverless cars to disable them, according to NPR.

In response to the stopping incidents, a Cruise spokesperson said the vehicles may pull over and turn on hazard lights when they encounter a situation where they can't safely proceed, at which point the company gets them operating again or picks them up.

The spokesperson added, while Cruise is working to minimize how often this happens, it will remain an aspect of overall safety operations.

“Safety is embedded in everything we do, and every ride allows us to enhance our safety experience. While our work is never done, we’ve engineered our technology to keep our riders and the communities we operate in safer,” the spokesperson said. “Our safety record includes having driven over three million driverless miles without any life-threatening injuries or fatalities.”

Cruise first entered the Austin market just a week after the NHTSA announced it had opened an investigation into Cruise following three crashes. The investigation said it is looking specifically at incidents of Cruise vehicles "inappropriately hard braking or become immobilized while operating" where the vehicles become "unexpected roadway obstacles." The investigation is still ongoing.

The NHTSA also has had a standing order since July 2021, that requires self-driving car companies to report a crash if automated driving systems were in use within 30 seconds of a crash that resulted in property damage or injury. However, the department does not require companies to report incidents where the vehicles stopped in traffic, but no collision occurs.

Under the order, Cruise has reported a handful of incidents in Austin, including a Cruise vehicle that was rear ended, at least one incident where a passenger in a Cruise vehicle opened a door into another passing Cruise vehicle, and two other collisions. Between all driverless car companies, about ten incidents have been reported in Austin since 2021.

Cruise is far from the first self-driving car company to set up shop in Austin. The city has been a hotbed of autonomous vehicle activity since at least 2016, with several companies currently operating in Austin.

In July, Volkswagen said it would start testing a small fleet of autonomous electric vehicles in Austin, marking the company's first autonomous driving test program in the United States. At the time, the company said plans to scale to 10 vehicles in Austin by the end of the year.

Earlier this year, Waymo, a Google subsidiary that was one of the first companies to test autonomous vehicles in Central Texas, announced it would be returning to test its electric Jaguar I-Pace across Central and East Austin in areas including downtown, Rainey Street, the Capitol, Holly, Clarksville, Bouldin Creek and the Market District. In early August, the company announced plans to make Austin the fourth city it will offer ridehail services, though it did not announce the specific timing for when it aims to offer public rides.

Argo AI, a Ford subsidiary, also previously tested vehicles in Austin from 2019 to 2022, and its operations included rideshare and delivery partnerships with Lyft and Walmart, before it shut down.

Cruise is coming to more cities nationallyConcerns over stopped carsOther self-driving cars in Austin