Sep 7, 2023 - Business

Complaints mount as robotaxis roll through Austin streets

Robotaxi rollout, by city
Data: Axios Research; Graphic: Rahul Mukherjee/Axios

As self-driving taxis navigate Austin streets, city officials have been fielding complaints about dangerous encounters with the vehicles from residents and first responders.

  • But the city's hands are tied when it comes to the regulation of autonomous vehicles.

Driving the news: Transportation department interim director Richard Mendoza said on Friday that Texas law prevents cities from regulating the approximately 125 autonomous vehicles operating in Austin from Waymo, Cruise and Volkswagen ADMT.

  • "AV technology is new, and while very exciting, poses significant challenges to communities chosen as testbeds for this technology," Mendoza wrote, adding that the department is communicating with officials in other test sites like San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Phoenix to determine how to best protect the public.

Why it matters: No injuries or deaths involving driverless vehicles have been reported in Austin, but since July, the city has received 19 complaints from residents and first responders — mostly about Cruise vehicles — over issues including unsafe turns, crashes, blocking traffic and nuisance concerns.

  • "We take the concerns voiced by Austin residents seriously, and frequently brief first responders on incidents or interactions," Cruise spokesperson Navideh Forghani told Axios. "We want to be good neighbors in the communities we serve and will continue to meet with the community, with city officials, and with first responders as we expand operations."

Details: Fire officials last month were dispatched to an accident west of the Capitol where a Cruise vehicle had driven off the road and into "a small electrical building," according to Austin Transportation Department records obtained by Axios.

  • "It hit the building with enough force to break some brick off (about an 8-inch hole)," the report said. Cruise representatives reportedly told emergency officials that the vehicle had been in "recovery mode" prior to veering off the road, and no one had witnessed the accident.
  • Because the Cruise Origin prototype had no steering wheel, the report noted, there was "no way for emergency personnel to quickly move it," and they had to wait for a tow truck.

Of note: The Origin prototype had a system fault during testing and pulled over safely, according to Cruise, but when live support attempted to re-engage the vehicle, it shifted out of park and rolled into the building at about 6 mph.

Flashback: A 2017 Texas law preempts local regulation of autonomous vehicles, which has made the state fertile ground for companies' expansion.

  • State law requires companies to follow registration requirements, equip the vehicles with a video recording system and immediately notify authorities of an accident.

The big picture: After investing tens of billions of dollars in research and development, robotaxi companies Cruise and Waymo are now shifting their focus to commercialization.

  • Austin is now one of a handful of cities where the public can hail a driverless taxi, but that list could grow by a dozen or more within the next year, writes Axios' Joann Muller.

What they're saying: Jay Crossley, chair of the board of Safe Streets Austin, tells Axios the group is open to any new technology that might make streets safer — an average of 12 people die on Texas roads every day — but is also wary of the risks from AVs.

  • The group helped coordinate two closed meetings hosted by Waymo to hear feedback from community advocates this week, he said.
  • Cruise officials also participates in the task force and have conducted trainings with first responders on how to interact with their vehicles, according to the company.
  • "If we're not being very open to seeing how these things can change our transportation system, we're not serious about ending traffic deaths," Crossley said.

Yes, but: "We need to change a lot of things [about our streets] that autonomous vehicles and other technology aren't going to fix for us," he added.

Zoom out: Across the country, it's not clear who has authority over AVs.

  • Ordinarily, the federal government oversees vehicle design, safety and performance, while states govern licensing, insurance and liability. Cities, meanwhile, control the local rules of the road.
  • With AVs, there is no driver to be licensed, and in some cases — like the Cruise Origin robotaxi being tested in Austin — no steering wheel or pedals either, complicating federal safety-standard compliance.

The bottom line: If AVs break local traffic laws, the city of Austin has the ability to enforce them and consider the owner of the vehicle to be the operator, a spokesman told Axios.

  • But issuing a citation to an AV owner is "more complex than issuing a citation to the driver of a vehicle. However, the city is working through a process to issue citations to AV companies when they violate local traffic laws," he said.
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