Q&A: What you should know about driverless vehicles on Houston streets

By Tera Roberson - Special Projects Producer

HOUSTON - Autonomous cars, also referred to as self-driving vehicles, have made their way to the Houston streets, and the trend appears to be picking up speed, with more companies adding the unmanned vehicles to the way they do business.

The reason for this uptick is because back in 2017, Texas was designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation as a national Automated Vehicle Proving Ground for the “testing of connected and automated vehicle technologies to solve community challenges.”

Now autonomous vehicles from Kroger and Texas Southern University (in partnership with Houston METRO) have hit the streets, and Domino's plans to add driverless delivery cars to its fleet later this year.

Here's what you need to know about autonomous vehicles:

Where can you see autonomous vehicles in action?

Kroger

The Nuro Kroger delivery cars are on the roads right now. The cars deliver groceries to customers living in the 77401, 77096, 77005 and 77025 ZIP codes.

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Although the current vehicles on the roads are self-driving, they are manned by autonomous vehicle operators. That will change later this year, when the fully autonomous vehicles hit the roads. For now, the Toyota Prius vehicles making deliveries are mapping roads and sending data back to Nuro.

Kroger

Images of Kroger’s new self-driving vehicles conjure up the tune of The Jetson’s theme song.

Texas Southern University

The shuttle on the campus of Texas Southern University runs daily along the University’s Tiger Walk, with free rides for the public Fridays. For more information on scheduling a ride, click here.

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Domino's Pizza

Later this year, you’ll see Domino's Pizza using the autonomous vehicle “R2” to make deliveries to customers who order online.

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How do you get your items out of the vehicle, if no one is inside to let you in the vehicle?

  • The vehicle looks like a “toaster bot” and has two compartments.
  • It will pull up to the customer’s curb, and the customer will put in a code.
  • Once the code is entered, the compartment will open and the customer can remove their items.

How safe are autonomous vehicles?

Sola Lowal, product operations manager at Nuro, says safety is the company’s top priority. He also points out safety measures on the part of Nuro:

  • Vehicles have a 360-degree view with no blind spots or distractions
  • Vehicles never travel over 25 mph
  • Vehicles are 100% focused on what’s happening around them; the technology allows technicians to see and hear what’s happening on nearby roads and to take action accordingly
  • Vehicles are willing to destroy themselves rather than get into an accident with another vehicle or pedestrian while on the road

How do you share the road with an autonomous vehicle?

Drive safely, as you normally would, and do not become distracted by the vehicle.

What do experts have to say about this trend?

Carol Abel Lewis is a professor and emeritus director of the Center for Transportation Training and Research at TSU and said they are evaluating many aspects of driverless cars.

“We’re looking at things like energy utilization. How long does it take to power it? How does it work in Houston’s humidity? We’re actually looking at passenger acceptance, as well,” Lewis said.

Kimberly Williams is the chief innovation officer with Houston METRO and says the partnership with TSU will allow METRO to look at how autonomous shuttles would be integrated into service.

“Our hope is to expand into phase two, which would connect us to the Purple Line, and then once we have the opportunity to see what the full integration looks like, then we’ll have an opportunity to scale from there,” Williams said.

What will the cars not do?

“We’re ultimately building a lighter, safer, slower vehicle than has ever been on the road," Lowal said. "They won’t text and drive, they won’t drink and drive, they won’t do their makeup and drive. These vehicles will be 100% focused on what’s happening around them, and with the technology we have, we can see what’s nearby, we can hear what’s nearby and take action accordingly.”

What’s next for the cars?

For the next few months, the Nuro vehicles will continue cruising the streets and making deliveries with operators in the car. In November, unmanned autonomous cars are set to hit the streets. And this wave of self-driving vehicles hitting the streets of Houston does not appear to be slowing down at all. In June, Domino's Pizza announced its new partnership with Nuro, which will deploy unmanned pizza delivery vehicles on Houston roads later this year.

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