A brief primer on driverless cars

From the Trib:

A driverless Cruise car sits in traffic on Austin Street in downtown Houston on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. Photo: Jay R. Jordan/Axios

It’s 8 p.m. in downtown Austin, and the electric cars silently exit the parking lot one by one — but no one is behind the wheel of any of them. The Cruise depot is full of people preparing the cars for another night of road testing.

There are about 125 autonomous vehicles, or AVs, operating in Austin, according to a city Transportation and Public Works Department memorandum.

It’s unclear how many are operating statewide. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, multiple companies are testing and operating driverless vehicles “as passenger, freight and personal delivery devices” all over the state. The list includes Kodiak, Aurora, Waabi, Torc, Plus.AI, Gatik, Cruise, Volkswagen, Waymo, Starship, Kiwibot, Coco, Refraction.AI, Nuro, and Clevon.

Here’s what you need to know about driverless vehicles in Texas.


What’s it like to ride in an AV?

A Texas Tribune reporter and photographer requested a ride through the Cruise mobile app, and got into “Cookie” — that’s the name of the car that picked us up.

Painted orange and white, the sedan had room for five people in back. On the roof, it had a mounted structure for all the cameras and sensors.

Cruise was founded in 2013 in San Francisco, where it offers driverless ride service through a mobile app. The company also operates driverless ride hail service in Austin between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m in downtown, Central and East Austin.

“Welcome,” a pre-recorded woman’s voice said as we got in, then asked us to fasten our seat belts. The recording continued: “Let’s cruise! For safety we are recording video, but no audio.” The interior looked like a normal car, except for a transparent plastic partition that separated us from the front of the vehicle.

Screens hanging on the backs of the front seats showed a digital map with the route that Cookie would follow to our destination and allowed us to select up to eight different radio stations. The steering wheel turned on its own as the car moved through downtown Austin traffic. The AV frequently drove slower than the vehicles around us, but at times it took corners very quickly.

At one point, the car appeared to detect a nonexistent collision. An alert appeared on the screens hanging from the front seats, the car stopped for a moment, then we heard a human voice coming through a speaker, asking if everything was okay.

The rest is more info about driverless cars in general and in Texas. This was the question I was most interested in. That story came out before the recent events that led to Cruise being taken off the streets for some as-yet undetermined length of time. Cruise had been officially operating in Houston in a limited area and only from 9 PM to 6 AM. We’ll see what happens when the pause is lifted.

In the meantime, the public image of robocars is going in the wrong direction.

The public’s trust in self-driving cars has declined for the second year in a row, according to a study conducted by J.D. Power and MIT. The growing distrust applies to self-driving cars in general, including autonomous vehicles used by ride-hailing services, as well as autonomous driving systems such as Tesla’s “Autopilot,” which belies its limited capabilities through a misleading name.

It’s these kinds of deceptive practices that seem to be turning public opinion against AVs, but the frequent robotaxi crashes aren’t helping, either. The 2023 Mobility Confidence Index Study puts consumer confidence in AVs at 37 (on a 100-point scale), which represents a decline of two points from last year when confidence was at 39 out of 100. And before that, in 2021, consumer confidence was at 42 out of 100. The results indicate trust in self-driving cars is going down steadily, and it keeps moving in a direction that bodes badly for AVs and major automakers who are betting big on self-driving cars.

The joint J.D. Power and MIT study claims that there are bright spots in the study, which found that first-time riders in robotaxis generally report positive attitudes towards AVs, but this is counteracted by negative media coverage of the “endless deployment issues” that autonomous vehicles are undergoing. And this, in turn, is contributing to the decline in trust.

I understand where the skepticism comes from, and I wonder how much the California suspension and then voluntary pause may affect that. I absolutely share that skepticism. In my case, I’d say that’s more about the marketing of autonomous vehicles than the technology, which I believe will in the end get to where it needs to be. Humans are overall lousy drivers, and I believe that tech can do better. I don’t think it’s there yet and the industry and its hypesters are way overpromising what it can do right now, to its detriment. So while I believe it will get there, I’m with the skeptics for now. It’s the safer place to be.

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