More driverless cars are coming to Austin: What you need to know

Austin is about to see more driverless cars on its roadways, as another autonomous vehicle company says it is expanding into Austin by the end of the year.

San Francisco-based Cruise, which is owned by General Motors, says it it has started ramping up its operations in Austin, with plans to offer robo-taxi services in Austin and Phoenix by the end of the year. The company joins other autonomous vehicles that have been testing or operating in Austin, including Ford and Argo AI.

Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt announced the expansion in a tweet and at a Goldman Sachs conference on Monday.

“It will initially be small-scale, but driverless and revenue generating with scaled operations to follow next year,” Vogt said. He said in Phoenix the company is building off an existing partnership it has with Walmart for delivery services. The company already has the permits needed for commercial ride-hall and delivery operations in Phoenix.

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The company has been operating a ride-hailing service in San Francisco and received permission to start charging customers for rides this year. In Austin, the company expects to move quickly to get its service operational, Vogt said. The company said it is able to scale up in Austin quickly because of the work it has done in California.

“What I'm really excited about is we're going from zero footprint, no maps, no infrastructure on the ground -- to our first revenue-generating driverless rides in about 90 days. This is something people thought may take years. It doesn't,” Vogt said.

What about service area and pricing?

Cruise declined to share details on exactly where in Austin the service will operate or how many vehicles it will have in Central Texas. Cruise's fleet is made up of Chevy Bolt electric vehicles that have sensors, cameras, radar and lidar that make it possible to operate autonomously, according to the company. Cruise will be opening a waitlist for people in Austin interested in using the service, similar to what the company has done in San Francisco.

“Riders will be able to hail a ride from their pickup location to their preferred destination, similar to traditional ride-hail apps, but with no driver,” the company said.

The company has not announced what it will cost to use its service in Austin, saying that the prices will be "comparable and competitive to traditional ride-hail.”

What does Texas law say about driverless vehicles?

In Texas, autonomous vehicles are regulated under a law passed in 2017 that allows the vehicles to operate without a driver inside, although prior to that no law prohibited autonomous vehicles and companies including Uber have tested on Texas roads since 2015.

The 2017 law says that autonomous vehicles used on highways have to be able to follow traffic laws, have insurance like other cars and be equipped with video recording devices. The manufacturers are considered responsible for any collisions or broken traffic laws.

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Ford, Argo AI and Lyft say they are partnering to offer autonomous vehicles as a ride-hailing option in some areas of Austin.
Ford, Argo AI and Lyft say they are partnering to offer autonomous vehicles as a ride-hailing option in some areas of Austin.

Are driverless services already on Austin's road?

Austin has long been a testing ground for driverless technology, something the city of Austin has encouraged.  In 2017, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he wanted Austin be to automated vehicles what Detroit has been to traditional automakers in the past century.

Truly driverless cars with no humans ready to take over are already cruising around Austin. Last year, driverless vehicle startup Argo AI announced it had began operating its autonomous test vehicles in Austin without human safety drivers. The vehicles are primarily operating downtown, as well as in east and south Austin, with the initial passengers being Argo AI employees who are able to stop or trigger the vehicle to pull over in case of emergency.

Argo AI had been operating in Austin since 2019 in partnership with Ford Motor Company, and Ford has been deploying prototypes in Austin to establish the city as a proving ground for autonomous vehicle technology.

Ford and Argo AI have established several partnerships to test autonomous technology in Austin. The companies are working with ride-hailing service Lyft, with plans to allow customers in defined service areas to select one of the self-driving vehicles when ordering a ride. The initial rollout for the program is expected be limited, with fewer than 100 vehicles between Austin and Miami where the company is also testing the program.

The companies are also working with retail giant Walmart, using the vehicles as part of Walmart's delivery service, primarily delivering orders in an area near the Walmart store on East Ben White Boulevard. In both Lyft and Walmart services, the vehicles still had human safety drivers ready to take over in the event of an issue.

Not all autonomous vehicle testing has stuck around in Austin. In 2019, Google’s autonomous vehicle company Waymo pulled out of Austin after testing its autonomous vehicle technology here for several years.

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Where is Austin-based Tesla on self-driving cars?

Austin-based automaker Tesla has also been developing self-driving technology that is likely being used in Austin. The company has been letting some of its drivers test an advanced driver assistance system called "full self driving" technology, designed to navigate, steer, accelerate and brake on local roads. Some of the many Tesla vehicles driving around Austin could be part of the program.

Despite the name, industry experts and the company itself do not consider the vehicles to be autonomous, and the feature does require active driver supervision. All Teslas produced after 2014 are also equipped with autopilot driver assistance technology. The newest version of the technology is powered by eight external cameras and vision processing technology.

An autonomous truck from Daimler is displayed during the debut of the Center for Autonomous Robotics in Austin earlier this year.
An autonomous truck from Daimler is displayed during the debut of the Center for Autonomous Robotics in Austin earlier this year.

What else is happening with self-driving tech in Austin?

Beyond the testing of vehicles, Austin is also home to a number of companies and tech operations that are working on technology for self-driving vehicles.

Austin technology giant National Instruments (which has rebranded to NI) has increasingly been making bets on autonomous vehicle and safety technology, entering into two deals related to the technology last year. NI acquired Austin-based monoDrive, a startup that specializes in autonomous vehicle simulations, and also announced it was entering a strategic collaboration with engineering simulation company Ansys.

Undher, an Austin-based company founded in 2015, makes digital imaging radar technology designed to be used in autonomous vehicles and advanced driver assistance systems. The company says its technology is capable of detecting and tracking thousands of objects, and that it is expected to be used in the upcoming Fisker Ocean crossover, which is scheduled to debut this year from EV startup Fisker.

Self-driving truck company Torc Robotics, which is owned by Daimler Truck, one of the world's largest commercial vehicle manufacturers, said this year that it was opening an Austin engineering hub.

John Deere, which opened an Austin technology office this year, has also said its teams here will be focused on software and data including developing software used in autonomous tractors that helps tractors use data from the cloud and GPS signals to take a precise and specific path.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: More driverless cars are coming to Austin: What you need to know