Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Robotaxi gridlock!

Coming to a city near you:

Over the weekend, photos and videos of yet another Cruise-induced robotaxi traffic jam spread across X (formerly Twitter). However, unlike the past incidents that have occurred largely in San Francisco, this one wasn't in California. Instead, it was in another of the country's tech hubs and in Tesla's backyard: Austin, Texas.

About 20 Cruise-operated Chevrolet Bolts were seen stuck up and down San Gabriel Street late Saturday night. Some had shifted into the oncoming side of the two-lane street, even forcing a pair of Cruise cars to face one another in some sort of autonomous stand-off, blocking traffic even further.

The actual cause of the jam remains unknown, though it's not uncommon for Cruise vehicles to become stuck and require human intervention—also known as a Vehicle Recovery Event. The individual who posted the photos and videos said they observed the Cruise workers trying to operate the cars via remote control to remediate the situation. A spokesperson hinted that the problem may have been related to pedestrian traffic, though the footage circulating social media does not show an abundance of people nearby during the gridlock.

The self-driving cars are currently in their testing phase in Austin, but it seems like the patience of local residents is also being tested:

The cars have also gotten stuck in crosswalks, at green lights, in intersections, and even played chicken with other Cruise vehicles. In fact, just have a look at the r/Austin subreddit and you'll quickly see how the self-driving experiment has tested the patience of locals.

"There's no city or county anything that is regulating them or overseeing what they are doing," said Travis County Judge Andy Brown, who once hailed a robotaxi and noted in that earlier KXAN report that his car pulled over and stopped in the street midway through the journey. "And the fact that it's in a testing phase but there's not the safeguard of a human in the front concerns me."

City council members are powerless, and the Austin Transportation and Public Works Department can't really do anything to stop Cruise from operating on its streets. Earlier this month, the department issued a memo noting that "Texas cities cannot regulate autonomous vehicles" as their authority is preempted by state law.

But that hasn't stopped residents from complaining about blocked intersections and interference with emergency services. The department has since reached out to equivalent bodies in Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C. for advice.

We may be in for similar experiences here in Houston. Cruise has begun operating autonomous vehicles out of a large lot at the corner of West Alabama and Stanford, and I've seen the vehicles circulating on the streets of Midtown.

I've been following along as autonomous vehicles are being deployed and tested in real-world environments, and while I'm not aware of any more fatalities caused by their testing, the intermittent problems places like San Francisco and Austin are experiencing while these cars are being tested indicates that these cars are only as safe and as functional as their programming allows. So-called "Level 5" autonomy - which allows self-driving cars to operate in any environment and under any condition - is truly a very difficult thing to achieve and there's debate as to whether it's even possible at all

Which is why this technology is only now coming to Houston, and why malfunctions like those being experienced in other cities are likely to occur here as well as the slow process of testing and reprogramming these vehicles continues.

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