City Council Alerts Public to Safety Concerns with Autonomous Vehicles in Austin
In an alarming update, City Council members in Austin were informed about the growing public safety concerns associated with the emerging autonomous vehicle industry. The Mobility Committee meeting held last week shed light on the city’s attempts to address safety and operational issues related to the four autonomous vehicle (AV) companies currently operating in Austin. The city has been closely monitoring and cautiously supporting the development of this technology since 2017. However, a state law passed that same year stripped cities of their authority to regulate AV companies or compel them to share data or enforce geofencing to restrict access to certain areas for these driverless vehicles.
Representatives from the Austin Fire Department (AFD) and Austin Police Department (APD) shared troubling incidents involving AVs failing to respond appropriately to traffic signal hand motions from officers and firefighters at public safety incidents. There was even a case where an AV refused to allow a Fire Department member to manually take control of the vehicle during an emergency, as agreed upon for safety purposes.
AFD Battalion Chief Matt Holmes recounted two incidents where an AV persisted in approaching a fire truck with its lights flashing, hindering the truck’s navigation into a fire station. “It would actually come closer and closer and closer to the firetruck, within I’d say less than 5 feet, even with firefighters standing there trying to use hand signals to stop,” Holmes expressed. “So we’re kind of stopped, still stuck out in traffic with lights on, and then the vehicle just decides to immediately just go around (the truck) for whatever reason.”
The timing of this meeting was notably coincidental as Cruise, one of the leading AV companies in the U.S., had recently announced its decision to halt operations to address serious public safety concerns that caused California regulators to revoke its operating license. Committee members expressed frustration and regretted their lack of authority to ensure Cruise and other AV companies operate safely on Austin streets.
“I’ve said from the beginning that I don’t think this technology is ready for prime time. And by their own operations, they were avoiding larger streets, maintaining a smaller footprint and staying away from special events with higher volumes of traffic and also reducing services during inclement weather. That tells us the company didn’t have enough faith in their own technology,” Council Member Zo Qadri exclaimed. “It’s unfortunate that state law doesn’t allow us to regulate this unproven technology.”
City data compiled from various sources, including 311 calls and camera footage, identified specific areas struggling with AV traffic management. These trouble spots include parts of Red River Street, West Campus, and portions of Martin Luther King Boulevard, particularly the area around Austin Fire Station No. 2.
Before announcing the pause in service, representatives from Cruise presented their plans for service improvement at the Downtown Commission earlier this month. The discussion focused on steps the company was taking to prevent incidents like the viral video clip showing multiple Cruise vehicles causing a traffic jam due to navigation challenges.
“We’ve seen videos on social media of their cars malfunctioning, causing traffic problems and a lack of immediate solutions, and it’s important for autonomous vehicle companies to realize that these driverless cars can be dangerous, and that our public roads should not be a test playground,” Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis stated. “We should not be treated like guinea pigs with limited state regulations in place. It’s important we identify ways for autonomous vehicle providers to be held accountable for malfunctions that threaten motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, or slow down our public safety responders.”
It is crucial for the public, policymakers, and AV companies to address these alarming safety concerns and find effective solutions. As the autonomous vehicle industry continues to evolve, ensuring public safety must remain a top priority.