A drawing of four men playing a video board game on a screen table inside an autonomous van. The seats face each other and there is no steering wheel.
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I have been shilling for autonomous vehicles for a long time, at the very least since 2020 and probably since 2016 (see: You Can't Hide From The Ride). But I had been shilling as a spectator. I read lots of trip reports and criticisms. I found that the people with experiences had positive ones and the critics all had a financial, spiritual, or political stake in making sure 40,000 Americans get killed every year. I built up an opinion accordingly. But there's nothing quite like experiential knowledge. Not having that was a deficiency in my ability to write about AVs. Recently, I was able to correct this. I got access to Cruise's Austin service in August 2023. I've taken multiple trips and can now verify what I've heard. This is how the first trip went.

I took my friend Rob along on my very first (and very second, because we had to get back) ride on the 25th. Cruise is hamstrung right now by a small operating zone and limited business hours. This makes choosing a destination the hardest part of the ride. Most of the places I want to go either close shortly after 8 PM when rides become available, or are outside the operating zone. My final pick, Central Market (Whole Foods for HEB purists), was outside the zone. However, there's a landmark inside the zone that's pretty close to Central Market. It's short enough a walk away that we would have a good hour and change to browse when we arrived.

You can't set pickup points right now even inside the operating zone. Clusters of preset points are generated close to your target. I picked the point that looked closest. The walking directions on the app are not very clear. It uses a circle-style indicator rather than an arrow, so you can't tell which direction you're walking except by watching your route shrink or grow. We ended up a little short of the pickup point. Beau showed up and we tried to get in, but couldn't open the doors. We figured out that this was because we were slightly short of the pickup point. We had to back off and let Beau travel the remaining few yards before the unlock option popped up on my phone.

Beau was comfortable and smelled recently cleaned. Once inside, a voice told us to buckle up, not do dumb shit (paraphrased), and press start when ready. It also said that video was being recorded, but not audio. This is useful information for criminals who don't sign. Anyway, what ensued was an ordinary car ride, empty front seat notwithstanding. Beau took a twisty route that stayed off main roads. It stopped for pedestrians. It behaved politely around the guy on a moped leaving a narrow alley.

We reached the destination around when we were estimated to. We got out, heeding the voice's reminder to make sure we took all our things with us. From there, it was about 10 minutes to Central Market. The shopping isn't relevant, but it was great, so you have to hear a bit about it anyway. I got a lobster mushroom and some smelts, neither of which I had ever tried before, and a lump each of amber resin and well-aged gouda. I also met a toad in the parking lot.

A Gulf Coast toad that lives at the grocery store.

I summoned our ride home on the way out. I selected the same landmark we used for dropoff as the return trip pickup. The app said, "Hey, that's nine minutes away. Are you sure?" I said, "Yeah." So it set the pickup and called Panda, which was about three minutes away. That plus the three minutes of wait time allotted is less than nine minutes. I got a button prompt for two bonus minutes, but that still wasn't enough to make it in time while walking at an easy pace.

Thing is, though, Panda was there and it had unlocked the doors. We found out the ride timed out after we were inside. We contacted customer support while Panda wandered around. Support told us to hop out and resummon, since Panda was already heading to a new pickup. This turned out not to be true. When we got out, Panda drove off, then came back and picked us back up just a few minutes later. Support also told us that if a car shows up faster than the estimated walk again, we can call them and they'll hold it. I haven't tried this yet, so we'll have to see if that works. Rob was excited for this part. He wanted to see what the system does in circumstances like this, and was hoping for the timeout. He has a point that it's good data. I hope Cruise uses it.

The second ride was almost uneventful. This time there was a moment when Panda stopped abruptly for something that we could not see. There was no thump. If it was an animal, it's safe now, unless it got hit by another car later. We arrived at the dropoff point with no other unusual behavior, got all our stuff, and got out. That was the end of the adventure.

The above description does not sound very good. I wanted to describe it the way that it was, so that people with no emotions about or concern for the future could decide whether they want to try Cruise or not. If it had been an Uber ride, basically, I'd have been annoyed but not annoyed enough to mess with the driver's rating or refuse to tip (I have had much, much worse rideshare experiences than this. But I've also had better ones - neither Beau nor Panda had mints and disco lights).

But if you do have emotions, you will have your mind completely blown by seeing an AV work from inside it. I was giggling the entire time. I felt high when I got out. The wheel moves with nobody turning it. This experience which I had been told - and occasionally still get told - was impossible happened twice in one day. Then it happened twice again the next day. That time, we got goat kefir.

Will the excitement wear off? Maybe. Probably. I still get amped when I ride planes, so it could go either way. But whatever generation succeeds zoomers will never experience the novelty in the first place. There won't be a wheel, so having no-one to turn it won't seem weird. But more importantly, they will neither kill nor be killed by the limitations of their human brains. The better world is here NOW and soon, we're all gonna be riding in it.