Longhorns Cruise Around Campus in Driverless Cars

Depending on when you graduated, you might have tried different methods of transportation to get home after a late-night study session. Whether walking to West Campus, taking a CapMetro bus to North Campus, or driving to Riverside, new technology has transformed the college experience one route at a time. Electric scooters have become ubiquitous; a partnership between Lyft and the University now offers free night rides from campus. And, most recently, Longhorns have become some of the few college students in the nation who can call a driverless car to get around the city. 

Cruise, owned by General Motors, launched in 2013 out of San Francisco. Since opening their fleet of self-driving cars to the public in January 2022, Cruise has expanded to Austin, TX, and Phoenix, AZ, with Houston and Dallas recently tapped as the next two cities. Though the app is still invitation-only, Longhorns and other Austinites have been testing it out since the end of last year.  

Rides in Austin are only available from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.—and never while raining—when fewer cars are ostensibly on the road. These precautions haven’t kept Cruise cars from getting into sticky situations, sometimes stopping mid-lane or on busy street corners.  

Nevertheless, Cruise’s cars—each with a twee name printed on the back bumper, side panels, and front hood—are becoming less of a novelty and more of an everyday sighting in the neighborhoods around UT. This reporter has even ridden in a few herself. 

When I started using the app in May 2023, Cruise offered the first week of rides for free, which was reason enough for me to ignore my vague unease at being piloted by a computer. Because there are fewer cars on the road than for other popular ride-hail apps, I often waited more than 10 minutes to be picked up.  

When the car pulls up, one must unlock the door from within the app. (I wondered what I would do if my phone ran out of battery after calling the car, but thankfully I never had this problem.) Both the app and in-vehicle screens allow two-way communication with safety and customer service teams. In fact, a disembodied voice once came over the car speakers while I was riding to say that they were investigating a system error remotely, though I didn’t notice anything awry.  

The experience is altogether eerie, yet very entertaining. The steering wheel turns as usual, just with nobody behind it. You get to choose your own music. As an introvert, I appreciated that I didn’t have to make small talk with anyone at the end of a long day (though I recognize that is a relatively trivial benefit). 

Novelty or not, the major downside of Cruise’s current technology is the navigation. A 10-minute ride from West Campus to North Campus took me half an hour due to unnecessary detours. It was unclear to me whether the car was trying to avoid busy streets or expand its map, or if it simply lacked the data in the first place to take the most direct route. 

In spite of the traffic jams and circuitous navigation, Cruise claims a noble goal: to make roads safer for drivers and pedestrians. Citing tragic statistics about auto collisions and traffic-related deaths, an internal safety report notes that their vehicles had significantly fewer collisions over the first million driverless miles than human-manned cars in comparable driving environments.  

The company is also working with the National Federation for the Blind, among other community partnerships, to ensure the cars can be independently accessed by people who are blind or visually impaired, transforming their ability to navigate urban environments. Cruise, however, must navigate legitimate public and governmental skepticism as the company continues to expand. 

Who knows what technology will transform campus life next, but as the orange-and-white Cruise cars learn their way around, let them remind you of what it felt like when you were first wandering aimlessly around the Forty Acres. After all, we were all freshmen once. 



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