Transportation

Cruise’s autonomous driving tech comes under scrutiny from safety regulators

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Cruise-car-in-San-Francisco-streets
Image Credits: Cruise

U.S. safety regulators have opened a preliminary investigation into the robotaxis developed and operated by GM self-driving subsidiary Cruise.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration said it opened the investigation after learning of incidents when these robotaxis “may have engaged in inappropriately hard braking or became immobilized while operating on public roads.” The preliminary investigation covers all Cruise AVs.

Reuters was the first to report the formal safety probe.

Cruise has received the proper permits from California regulators to operate and charge for driverless rides in certain areas of San Francisco. The company is awaiting the last remaining approval from the state’s Public Utilities Commission to expand its service area to all of San Francisco.

As Cruise has ramped up its driverless operations, so has the public’s attention. While numerous videos and posts focus on the thrill of riding in a driverless car, not all of the public’s documentation has been positive. Numerous videos and images have been posted on social media, Reddit and other public forums documenting Cruise robotaxis seemingly stuck in intersections and blocking traffic in San Francisco.

However, NHTSA didn’t learn of the hard-braking crash events from social media. Cruise reported the events via the agency’s Standing General Order, which requires manufacturers to report certain crashes involving vehicles equipped with automated driving systems or SAE Level 2 advanced driver assistance systems. This is the third investigation NHTSA has opened into an automated driving systems developer; the first two were for Pony.ai (a recall query and an audit query), according to the agency. There have been multiple investigations into Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system.

NHTSA said three hard-braking crashes were reported by Cruise through the Standing General Order. Two crashes involved injuries. Cruise said in all three of these incidents, the vehicle was supervised, which means there was a trained safety operator behind the wheel. None of the incidents resulted in police citations, according to the company.

Cruise also said it has already met with NHTSA to discuss each one of the events mentioned in their filing, and provided the agency with briefings and the information they requested. The agency said the investigation was launched to determine the scope and severity of the potential problem and fully assess the potential safety-related issues posed by these two types of incidents.

“Cruise’s safety record is publicly reported and includes having driven nearly 700,000 fully autonomous miles in an extremely complex urban environment with zero life-threatening injuries or fatalities,” Cruise spokesperson Hannah Lindow wrote in an emailed statement to TechCrunch. “This is against the backdrop of over 40,000 deaths each year on American roads. There’s always a balance between healthy regulatory scrutiny and the innovation we desperately need to save lives, which is why we’ll continue to fully cooperate with NHTSA or any regulator in achieving that shared goal.”

Lindlow noted that in each of these instances, the robotaxi was predicting and responding to the behavior of aggressive or erratic road actors, and was working to minimize collision severity and risk of harm.

NHTSA didn’t provide further insight into the cases of immobilized Cruise vehicles. However, Cruise told TechCrunch that the company designed its technology to err on the side of being conservative. Whenever the technology isn’t extremely confident in how to proceed, the vehicle will turn on hazard lights and come to a safe stop. If needed, Cruise personnel are physically dispatched to retrieve the vehicle as quickly as possible, the company said, adding this is rare and has not resulted in collisions.

The robotaxi may become immobilized because a door is left open, there’s an issue with vehicle hardware or software or there is an out-of-ordinary external event on the road like a spontaneous fireworks display in the street, according to the company. A spokesperson said the company communicates with the CPUC and the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, the agency that regulates autonomous vehicles, around how, why and when it does this.

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