Riding Through Austin in a Cruise Driverless Taxi: I Had Questions

Would it be scary? Unnerving? Weird? We spent three evenings riding around Austin in a Cruise driverless taxi, and this is what it was like, and what we liked most.

My Cruise Arrived!
My Cruise arrived!

Editor’s note: Since this article was written, Cruise has paused its autonomous driving operations to examine their processes, systems, and tools comprehensively and reflect on how they can better operate. To that end, they have also issued a voluntary recall of part of their AV software while they analyze and improve any hardware and software issues that may have been encountered.

Questions, yes, but no hesitation!

When Cruise driverless taxi service comes to your town, you have to take a ride, right? And another, and another. Cruise, the driverless car company, recently launched driverless taxi service (also called robotaxis) using Chevy Bolt electric cars , in Austin. So I went downtown to try it out. Here is what you need to know when you decide to take the plunge and hail a driverless car. 

Related: The Chevrolet Bolt EUV: Everything You Need

Look .. No Driver! Cruise Driverless Taxi

Look .. No driver!

Was it Scary? Was I Afraid?

No. Not at all. But I have been around the technology enough to know how it works and I am comfortable with it. I trusted it almost more than I trust adaptive cruise control in a car I’ve never driven before. 

But, I was more aware of what was going on around the car than I normally am in a taxi. I looked for the turn signals (which I couldn’t hear) and watched for pedestrians and changing traffic lights. Through seven rides over 3 nights, Cruise got it right every time.

Related: Baseless Car Seat Installation: How to Keep Baby Safe In Taxis and Ubers

The Clear Pick Up Spot Prompt, Cruise Driverless Taxi

The clear pick up spot prompt. Photo: Scotty Reiss

How Does Cruise Driverless Taxi Work For Riders?

Mostly, like any ride hailing app: Download the app and fill out some basic information. However, Cruise adds you to a waitlist to ensure there are enough cars to serve its riders. I was added to the rider list a few days after applying. From there, once I added my credit card information I was ready to go.

When you are ready for your ride, tap the app and set your destination. You’ll be prompted to choose a pick up spot  — typically you’ll see several offered on the app and you can choose the one that is easiest for you — and then you’ll see the app searching for your ride (sound familiar?). 

Once your car is assigned to your ride, your credit card will be processed (notifications from my credit card company let me know that my ride was verified even before the app did!). 

In Austin Cruise operates in a limited downtown district from 8PM to 5:30 AM only (for now, but Cruise intends to expand service to cover the whole city) and charges $5 per ride. Cruise also operates in Phoenix and San Francisco, is testing in Miami and Raleigh, and is making plans to operate in Nashville, Seattle, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas and Houston. In San Francisco, Cruise operates around the clock and charges a $5 base fare, adding .40 per mile and .90 per minute, but in Phoenix it’s nighttime only for now and riders can still ride for free. 

From there … it’s all pretty standard: Your app will show the name of your car, an ETA and the pickup spot; just go to your meeting spot and wait for your ride.

Related: 13 of Our Absolute Favorite Electric Cars

Tap The Button On Your App To Unlock The Doors, Cruise Driverless Taxi

Tap the button on your app to unlock the doors. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Once the Cruise Driverless Taxi Arrives…? 

Since each Cruise car has its own name, they are easy to pick out. They are a frequent site on the streets of Austin these days, so it’s easy to think that each one that drives by is yours. When it approaches it will put on its flashers and pull over to a safe location for you to get in.

Nearly every time I called a Cruise, it drove past me to pull over out of traffic. A few times I had to walk a block or more to the car. But, it will wait for 4 minutes; you’ll see a counter on your app, and you can tap a selection to add more time to get to your car if you need to.

Once you approach the cruise, tap the “unlock Cruise” button on your app and climb in. I always tried to use the curb side door, but in one instance, the Cruise pulled too closed to a parked car so I had to enter on the street side. It was fine, but I did have to look out for oncoming traffic. 

Once inside, a pre-recorded message welcomes you to Cruise. You’re prompted to buckle your seatbelt and then tap the seatback screen to begin your ride. 

On my first ride a customer service agent “called” my car to welcome me to Cruise and ask if I had any questions. But everything is so self-explanatory I just thanked her for the call.

The Cruise Phone Screen Showing Our Route

The Cruise phone screen showing our route. Photo: Scotty Reiss

What’s it Like As a Passenger?

Honestly… calm. Quiet. Lovely. The Cruise cars in Austin are Chevy Bolts and they feel brand new. They are electric, so they are very quiet. But other functions are quiet…. such as the turn signals, which I could not hear.  

The interior temperature was set to 68 degrees, so it felt very comfortable, and calm blue ambient lighting throughout the cabin set a nice tone. Every cruise I got into was really clean; the company takes them to a lot downtown to be cleaned and charged each day, and the cleaning shows.

Passengers are limited to the back seat; there is plexiglass between the front and rear seats and the front passenger seat is not available to riders. And if you need to bring something –luggage, for instance – you have to fit it in the rear seat with you; the cargo hatch doesn’t open for passengers.

Service pets are allowed but regular pets are not, according to the company. And while the “driver” can’t refuse to pick you up if you have a pet – an issue for many people with guide dogs – Cruise agents can see if you have a pet in the car with you and may end your ride if you do.

And with no one making small talk (unless your travel companion does), the cabin is very relaxing. 

However, I felt compelled to watch the car drive. I looked for pedestrians and felt a sigh of relief when the car “saw” them, too. I watched the lights ahead, noted the speed we traveled (never very fast) and our next turns. I could follow the entire journey on the seatback screens as well as the main screen on the front dashboard. Everything was easy to see and easy to follow. 

If I felt like tuning out, I could also change the radio station and adjust the cabin temperature. I could roll down the windows (and immediately got a verbal warning not to put my arms out the window) if I wanted a little fresh air. 

Once we arrived at our pre-set destination, the Cruise put on its flashers and pulled out of traffic. A pre-recorded message alerted us that we’d arrived and reminded us to take all our belongings. The doors unlocked and we were able to easily hop out. 

My After-Ride Survey

My after-ride survey

Can You Get Human Help if You Need it?

Yes. Like Uber, you can send your location to a friend from your app.

Or, you can call a customer service agent from the car. There is a button on each seat back screen and one on the ceiling. There are cameras in the car, so agents can look into the car and see if everything is OK.

And then, there are non-human safety measures. You can tap the “end ride” button on the ceiling or on the seat back screen if you change your mind about your ride. 

All That Equipment On The Rooftop Of The Cruise Driverless Taxihelps This Car To Drive Itself

All that equipment on the rooftop of the Cruise driverless taxi helps this car to drive itself. Photo: Scotty Reiss

How Does the Technology Work?

These cars are distinctly visible. Not only are they painted orange and white with huge Cruise logos, but they have spinning, whirring sensors on their rooftops. 

These sensors, as well as lidars, radars and cameras built into the Chevy Bolt, work to learn everything around the car and interpret it in real time, just like a human would. 

They also draw on mapped information and other data sources, such as information collected by other Cruise cars, the city, weather forecasts, you name it. Lidar and radar sensors can see the traffic ahead, pedestrians on the sidewalk, bikes in the bike lane and more. 

Of my three nights of riding, it seemed like Cruise got better at everything, from offering better pick up spot choices to better drop off locations. I also think I got better at understanding how to pick the best area for pickup. Cruise won’t pick up on a busy road, next to bike lanes, bus lanes or at valet stands. It may go past your location if it senses too many vehicles or activity at the designated pickup spot. It may not offer pick up or drop off on a narrow two-lane road. Which makes sense for all cars, not just driverless ones. 

Cruise Driverless Taxi Cars Are Everywehre In Austin

Cruise cars are everywhere in Austin. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Are There Hiccups?

Of course. The first time I tried to hail a Cruise was a total fail. The app assigned me a car and asked me to walk several blocks for pickup. I got there, and then, poof: The ride disappeared from my screen. So I tried again, and after 10 minutes of waiting, it disappeared again. We gave up and walked. 

The second time we hailed a Cruise, this happened again. But I quickly tried again, and soon our car arrived, and it all worked as it’s supposed to. That never happened again, and I have to think that my first attempt was so early on in Cruise’s days in Austin that they were still working out the bugs.

Pay attention to your drop-off destination. On one of my rides, I selected the JW Marriott as my destination. Rather than dropping me in front — it’s on narrow 2-lane 2-way street with a valet lane— or  across the street, Cruise took me to the rear of the building where there is not an entrance. It was dark and I was dropped near the loading zone where the dumpsters are kept — not the most pleasant location. It was fine, but if I’d had luggage or small kids, I’d have been better off selecting a specific address rather than setting “JW Marriott” as my destination. 

And, I had a bit of a ‘bug’ moment. On one of the rides, as soon as I got into my Cruise, it pulled into traffic and immediately stopped in the center of the road. There was no traffic around us and no reason for the stop (that I could see). After a second or two, it re-started and we were on our way. Immediately a customer service agent called the car and asked if the Cruise had stopped, and if it had restarted. He wanted to make sure I was OK. But everything was fine.

And, often, the route to my destination was long and winding, going a mile or more out of the way. Cruise says that its cars choose a route for a number of factors, including traffic, safety, feedback from other Cruise cars, and more; my route could have also been chosen in order to put the car on a particular side of the road. I didn’t mind, as it was unbelievably hot outside and lovely inside the Cruise. But if I’d been in a hurry, Cruise may have not been the most efficient choice. 

In the End…

I really like the Cruise experience. The cabin is like a private bubble, quiet, clean, calm, and will likely remain that way until these things become uber-popular and people are less kind to their surroundings. 

The technology worked, and felt safe. That it operates in a limited area of downtown streets also limits the risk. I look forward to the days when it can navigate the highways and suburbs with construction, traffic cops, buses, bikes, and zig-zagging drivers, and I hope that it brings calm to those experiences, too. 

Have a thought or comment? Share it with us on social media! You can find us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. And be sure to sign up for our email newsletter! Additionally, A Girls Guide to Cars may earn a commission from affiliate links in this story.

Car Shopping

Need a new car? Whether shopping for a new car or a used car we recommend using our car shopping service

Tire Shopping

Need new tires? We recommend Tire Rack

Car Repair

Need to get your car repaired? We recommend Repair Pal. Exclusively just for Girls Guide to Cars readers, call (877) 323-1708 to speak to RepairPal Car Genius for FREE automotive repair advice and if needed to find the right shop for you!

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss