Cruise is now cruising some Houston streets. The self-driving car service has launched with $5 flat-rate rides. Photo courtesy of Cruise

For the first time, Houstonians can hail an autonomous vehicle to get from point A to point B, thanks to a tech company's latest market roll out.

San Francisco-based Cruise, which has launched in its hometown, Phoenix, and Austin over the past year and a half, previously announced Houston and Dallas as the company's next stops. Dallas, where Cruise is currently undergoing testing, will roll out its service by the end of the year.

As of today, October 12, Houstonians in the Downtown, Midtown, East Downtown, Montrose, Hyde Park, and River Oaks neighborhoods can hail a ride from an autonomous electric vehicle seven days a week between the hours of 9 pm to 6 am.

"We believe that everyone has a right to safer, more accessible and more affordable transportation, and we remain focused on cities first because that’s where our mission will have the greatest impact. Houston follows that city-first strategy with its densely traversed downtown, propensity for ridehail, and vibrant cultural center," Sola Lawal, Cruise's Houston manager, tells InnovationMap. "Cruise also shares in Houston’s Vision Zero mission to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030 and we’re excited to address the transportation needs of Houston communities."

Although today marks the launch to the public, Cruise's employees and their friends and family have been testing out the service since August.

"People love this shift from working for your car as the driver, to the car working for you and the time this gives people back in their days," he explains. "A common reaction from first time riders starts with people being shocked and awed for the first two minutes then the ride becomes so normal that you forget you're in a driverless car."

Founded in 2013 by CEO, CTO, and President Kyle Vogt and Chief Product Officer Dan Kan, Cruise vehicles have self-driven over 5 million miles — 1 million of those miles were cruised on Texas streets. The company's fleet includes 400 electric vehicles powered by renewable energy.

Cruise's plan for Houston is to launch and grow from there, including launching larger passenger vehicles, the Origin fleet, for bigger groups of people.

"We always start small and methodically expand from there. For us it’s all about safety and how we expand in partnership with communities, so we let that be our guide for expansion vs arbitrary timelines," Lawal says. "Our goal is to continue to expand as quickly and safely as possible so we can get folks to the Rodeo when it starts and back home, anywhere in Houston, when it ends. You can expect expanded map areas, increased supply of AVs, and expanded hours until we are 24/7 across Houston."

Cruise has raised $10 billion in capital commitments from investors, including General Motors, Honda, Microsoft, T. Rowe Price, Walmart, and others. Additionally, the tech company has also a $5 billion credit line with GM Financial, giving it the financial support needed to scale. Strategically aligned with General Motors and Honda, Cruise has fully integrated manufacturing at scale.

Cruise, which touts a pricing model competitive to existing rideshares, is launching with $5 flat-rate rides for passengers.

"Houstonians who ride with us have the chance to be part of history in the making," Lawal tells Houston's to-be Cruise riders. "The industry has made incredible progress in the last two years but we are still in the early days of what’s to come as driverless ridehail becomes a reality for more people.

"We are proud of the service we’ve built so far and the safety record we have to show for it, but will always continue to improve. We're excited to launch with the community of Houston and we simply ask that you give it a try," he continues. "And when you do please give us feedback, we’d love to hear about your experience."

Origin, a larger, six-person self-driving vehicle, will also launch in the Houston market once Cruise rolls it out. Rendering courtesy of Cruise

Soon, you'll be able to cruise to your destination without a driver in Houston. Photo via Cruise/Facebook

Self-driving rideshare company cruises its robotaxies into Houston

look ma, no driver

Anew driverless ridehail service is coming to Houston: Cruise, the all-electric, driverless car company backed by GM, is expanding in Texas with launches in both Dallas and the Bayou City.

This follows an initial launch in Austin in 2022, their first city in Texas.

Cruise builds and operates driverless vehicles that you can call via an app, like any other ride hailing service. "But our vehicles show up without anyone else inside," they say.

The entire fleet is all-electric and the vehicles are equipped with a 360-view, with the ability to react to whatever they encounter on the road.

They test their vehicles using simulations, through millions of scenarios and virtual miles; they’ve also driven more than 4 million real miles, mostly in San Francisco.

They have not defined what the cost will be but according to The Verge, the rates in San Francisco vary depending on length of trip and time of day: "A customer taking a 1.3-mile trip would pay 90 cents per mile and 40 cents per minute, in addition to a $5 base fee and 1.5 percent city tax, for a total of $8.72." By comparison, an Uber ride for the same trip would cost at least $10.41.

The company was founded in 2013 and vehicles began to hit the road in 2022. They operate a total fleet of roughly 300 all-electric AVs, powered 100 percent by renewable energy. In addition to Austin, they operate in San Francisco and Phoenix, where they've completed 35,000 self-driving deliveries in a partnership with Walmart.

According to a statement from CEO Kyle Vogt, they'll begin supervised driving (with a safety driver behind the wheel) in Houston as they finetune their AI technology to understand the nuances and unique elements of the city, with Dallas to follow shortly after.

In a blog post, Vogt says their cars drive the speed limit and come to a complete stop at every stop sign. They respond to police sirens, flashing lights on fire trucks or ambulances, and stop signs that fold out of school buses.

They react to people on scooters, people using bike lanes, and cars driving on the wrong side of the road. "In short, they are designed to drive safely by obeying the law and driving in a humanlike way," he says. Actually, that sounds better than humans.

When vehicles encounter a situation where they aren’t 100 percent sure of what to do, they slow down or stop and pull over to the side of the road. This has caused some bumps in San Francisco where cars stopped and idled in the street for no apparent reason, delaying bus riders and disrupting the work of firefighters.

Photo via Cruise/Facebook

Some of the "bumps" have been comical, such as the 2022 incident in which a confused San Francisco police officer pulled a Cruise over, and then the Cruise drove away.

And as Reuters notes, autonomous vehicles have not rolled out as fast as anticipated, due to regulations, safety investigations, and arduous technology.

When Cruise first enters a city, they hire a mapping and data collection team to learn bike lanes, school zones, and major intersections. But most of the time, the vehicles will be carrying riders in the back seat, or completely empty and en route to another pickup.

The company partners with first responders, including police and fire departments, to ensure they’re ready and familiar with how to interact with the vehicles, engaging with those agencies before and after launch.

"Our guiding mission has always been to improve road safety, reduce emissions, and reduce congestion with our driverless ride-hail service in cities, which is where we’ll see the most significant positive impact the soonest," Vogt says. "Houston and Dallas are committed to reducing traffic deaths as part of their Vision Zero commitments, and we are excited to operate in and partner with these new communities in this shared mission."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.

Texas organization grants $68.5M to Houston institutions for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.