Driverless cars that government regulators in other states have cracked down on in recent weeks are on their way to Atlanta.
The Cruise robo-taxis are expected to hit Atlanta streets in a matter of months.
Just three days after Channel 2 consumer investigator Justin Gray tested out the robo-taxis in Austin, Texas, Cruise announced it was temporarily adding in-car human supervision back to every driverless car it has on the road.
The move came after a pedestrian was seriously injured in an accident.
“It feels automatically kind of natural. Just there’s nobody sitting up there,” said Gray while riding in the robo-taxi.
“Yeah, absolutely,” said Mike Staples, Cruise’s general manager in Austin.
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“This is my first trip to Austin. It’s kind of an interesting way to see the city,” Gray said.
At the time of the test drive, Cruise owned by General Motors had about 100 self-driving robo-taxis on the road in downtown Austin.
Gray and Staples rode in the backseat of the Cruise robo-taxi with nobody behind the wheel.
Channel 2 Action News went to Austin to check them out because these robo-taxis are coming to Atlanta next.
Cruise already has sent vehicles to map Atlanta streets.
“Cruise provides a service that’s much like your standard ride-share service. But we do it with autonomous vehicles, and we like to think we do it safer,” Staples said.
The question about safety is a big one.
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Just one day after Gray’s test rides, the state of California’s Department of Motor Vehicles suspended Cruise’s permits to deploy driverless vehicles because of concerns about pedestrian safety.
Two days later Cruise announced it was pausing all rides without a person monitoring the vehicle “while we take time to examine our processes, systems, and tools and reflect on how we can better operate in a way that will earn public trust.”
“In my opinion, a driverless driver is mindless. And that just sounds a little reckless,” said Bailey Pishner, who lives in Austin.
She said she saw something similar to a video another Austin resident recorded of lines of Cruise cars stopped and backing up traffic.
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“They kind of hit a nick in the road and they were kind of like bunched up,” Pishner said.
“Are they ready for crazy Atlanta drivers and crazy Atlanta roads here?” Gray asked Georgia Tech professor Srinivas Peeta, who studies autonomous and connected vehicles.
“I don’t think so in that sense,” Peeta said.
He believes driverless cars are the future. As for the present, what he said is more complicated.
“There are going to be hiccups because our vehicles, the infrastructure and the people are all conditioned to human drivers,” Peeta said.
Peeta took Gray for a ride in an autonomous car simulator in his midtown lab.
“We’re about to hit a car,” Gray said, as they approached another vehicle in the simulator.
No harm was done when the system on the autonomous car simulator went haywire in Peeta’s lab, but for driverless cars to get smarter, they have to be on real roads in real conditions.
“They’re constantly collecting data,” Staples said.
The biggest thing Gray noticed on his test rides is the Cruise vehicle is at times very cautious.
“I see a jogger,” Gray said as the car stopped, then pulled over, all by itself.
“The vehicle’s going to take the most conservative action. In some cases, that might mean it’s going to stop,” Staples said.
Federal regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have opened an investigation into concerns Cruise vehicles may not be exercising appropriate caution around pedestrians.
There have been dozens of incidents involving pedestrians and emergency vehicles in San Francisco.
In October, San Francisco emergency crews had to use the jaws of life after a Cruise vehicle stopped on top of a pedestrian who had been hit by a hit-and-run driver.
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But Cruise maintains its vehicles are safer than human drivers.
“We are in 65% fewer collisions, right? We are in 94% fewer collisions where we are the cause of the incident,” Staples said.
“Yeah, this is the first time it’s done anything strange,” said Gray while riding in the robo-taxi.
He experienced one rough moment.
“We’re actually stuck in the road,” Gray said.
The Cruise couldn’t decide when to make a turn onto a busy road and then just stopped halfway through, temporarily blocking the road.
“That car was flashing its lights at us, telling us to go,” Gray said about an oncoming car.
Peeta worries what that could lead to if it happened on the downtown connector.
“We are simply even in the context of the autonomous vehicles, we’re talking about children rather than adults,” Peeta said.
But like with children Cruise said when the robo-taxis hit Atlanta they will start slow with a small area they cover that eventually grows as they show they can handle Atlanta’s unique city streets.
Gray said his test rides went smoother than many taxi or rideshare trips he has taken.
“What do you think? Does it feel pretty normal?” Staples asked Gray.
“It was surprisingly kind of scarily normal, right? It’s amazing how quick you get used to the fact that no one’s up there,” Gray said.
Cruise told Channel 2 Action News that it has initiated a voluntary software recall through NHTSA after that October San Francisco pedestrian accident.
Cruise said it learned from the crash that Cruise AV may attempt to pull over out of traffic instead of stopping when it should.
Cruise is rolling out a software fix.
While Cruise won’t give a specific date, it still expects its robo-taxis to hit the road in Atlanta in a matter of months.
With the pause, Cruise has a human in every car and that is how it plans to start in Atlanta regardless of when the company goes back to normal operations.
The first step in a new city is always supervised driving before running the cars totally driverless.
VIDEO: Channel 2′s Justin Gray interviews Cruise General Manager in Austin as they ride in driverless taxi