Sep 26, 2023 - News

Scoop: Driverless Cruise cars are already on Houston streets

A driverless Cruise car sits in traffic on Austin Street in downtown Houston on Friday. Photo: Jay R. Jordan/Axios

Cruise is testing autonomous vehicles without safety drivers in Houston ahead of a planned expansion into commercial nighttime service by the end of the year.

Driving the news: A spokesperson for the autonomous vehicle company confirmed to Axios Tuesday it is offering driverless ride-hailing service to employees and their friends and family, one of the final steps in its testing process before full commercial service.

  • The company had not previously publicly announced this driver-free phase of testing.

Why it matters: Like other cities with driverless Cruise vehicles, including Austin, Houston is already seeing traffic issues arise as a result.

For example: Several unoccupied Cruise vehicles disrupted traffic when they stopped at the Montrose Boulevard and Hawthorne Street intersection around 8pm Tuesday after a traffic light malfunctioned.

  • Houston police responded to the scene and directed traffic around the cars.
  • A witness told Axios that officers on the scene tried tapping on the Cruise car's window to get it to move, to no avail.
Three driverless Cruise cars sit at a Montrose intersection blocking traffic
A handful of Cruise's driverless cars blocked traffic in Montrose on Tuesday. Photo: Courtesy of Alex Spike

What they're saying: "Our vehicles were stopped at an intersection where the lights were not cycling and showed all red," a Cruise spokesperson told Axios in a statement.

  • "While some vehicles took a little time to safely navigate the intersection, all vehicles were able to clear the intersection autonomously. Safety is embedded in everything we do, and our vehicles are designed to adhere to traffic signals and follow rules of the road."

Catch up quick: The company already offers driverless taxi services in several cities, including Austin, Phoenix and San Francisco.

"I don't think this is much compared to the recent Austin incidents," Simon Newton, a neighbor who witnessed Tuesday's Montrose incident, tells Axios. "But not a good start."

  • In Austin, residents and first responders have reported a Cruise car rolling into a building, as well as vehicles bumping into parked cars and causing traffic delays.

State of play: Cruise isn't the only autonomous vehicle company operating in Houston.

Of note: Jesse Bounds, director of the Mayor's Office of Innovation, tells Axios he isn't aware of complaints or questions from the community about Cruise operations.

  • He said the city is setting up a process to track 311 and 911 calls about autonomous vehicles.
  • Plus, officials plan to create a working group representing various departments to stay on top of autonomous vehicle-related incidents similar to one in Austin, he added.

Between the lines: Houston police don't yet have a framework for interacting with Cruise cars when they malfunction, are involved in a crash or violate the rules of the road, Houston Police Department spokesperson Victor Senties tells Axios.

  • "We're still trying to gather information and guidance on how we would be enforcing those types of laws," he says.

Context: 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 a crash.
  • Carnegie Mellon associate professor Phil Koopman, an expert in AV safety, told Axios' Joann Muller that "cities need to have a plan for enforcing traffic laws when there is no driver."

Flashback: Mayor Sylvester Turner's administration has welcomed autonomous vehicle operators provided they "adhere to rigorous safety standards and comply with all applicable rules of the road," Bounds told Axios earlier this month.

  • "The [mayor's] administration recognizes the potential of this pioneering technology to reduce traffic congestion, enhance public safety, mitigate transportation-related emissions and decrease transportation expenses."

Be smart: Those interested in taking rides with Cruise should join an ever-growing waitlist.

💭 Thought bubble from Axios transportation correspondent Joann Muller: "While the number of self-driving robotaxis on the road remains quite small, these fleets are naturally operating under increased scrutiny, so every incident, no matter how small, will get a lot of attention until they can prove they are at least as safe as a human driver."

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect the Cruise news was confirmed on Tuesday, not Wednesday.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Houston.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Houston stories

No stories could be found


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Houston.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more