By Matt McFarland, CNN Business
GM’s self-driving car subsidiary Cruise said earlier this year it wanted to add up to 5,000 more robotaxis to American streets, including San Francisco, where it currently runs a fleet of fewer than 100 cars. . But the city says robotaxis are already becoming an autonomous nightmare and warns that a much larger fleet could worsen safety and traffic.
San Francisco-based Cruise began offering 10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. ride service in the city earlier this year for a fee. The model resembles Uber and Lyft, but relies on driverless Chevrolet Bolts that maneuver with AI-powered software and sensors. Cruise has sought approval for a new vehicle that could dramatically increase the size of its San Francisco-based fleet – up to 50 times the size – as it strives to hit $1 billion in revenue before 2025.
But San Francisco has concerns ranging from general traffic to dangerous situations that have already been encountered, the city said in a 36-page response, filed last week as part of a request for public comment issued by the National Highway. Traffic Safety Administration (or NHTSA) in response to GM’s request to be exempt from certain federal safety standards for its new self-driving vehicle, known as the Cruise Origin.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) and San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) submitted the comments on behalf of the city and county based on close cooperation with the Office of the mayor, the police department, the fire department, the emergency management department and the mayor’s office. on disability.
Unlike its existing Chevrolet Bolts, the Origin won’t have human controls like a steering wheel and pedals. Cruise needs an exemption from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s vehicle safety standards, which were designed for an era of human drivers.
The city said it was “disappointed” with the petition, which “generally assumes, rather than making a strong and compelling case, that GM’s autonomous technology will improve the safety of the transportation system.”
The first concern, traffic, isn’t just about the influx of new cars that GM wants to put on city streets. That’s how these self-driving cars, which have no steering wheel or pedals for a human operator, are likely to drive too.
Or not drive.
San Francisco says that when GM began rolling out its fleet of driverless Chevrolet Bolts to city streets, 911 calls started piling up. In late May 2022, city officials began noticing an increase in calls related to cruise vehicles. City police began noticing self-driving disabled vehicles sitting, blocking traffic lanes. Emergency callers reported cruise vehicles driving erratically, in one case signaling in one direction but heading in another, or parking in front of transit vehicles.
And then the backups started.
“The most common complaint at 9-1-1 [regarding Cruise vehicles] has been on cruise AVs blocking traffic lanes for long periods of time causing traffic backups,” the city said. “In some cases, callers reported evasive maneuvers by others, such as driving on a sidewalk to get around the blockage.”
But it’s not just because a cruiser stops in the middle of the road. There can be several at the same time.
Thirteen Cruise robotaxis stopped simultaneously on a major thoroughfare in June, the city said. Two other “large group incidents” were reported in San Francisco in August. Cruise declined to comment on allegations of “group incidents” involving his vehicles.
A third of the 28 cruise vehicle-related emergency calls made between May 28 and September 5 “involved multiple non-operational cruise AVs and affected multiple lanes of traffic.” Although the city said it lacks reliable data on the number of incidents, they can last for hours.
San Francisco officials identified 20 other such incidents on social media, they said in the report.
A large fleet and extended hours “could quickly drain emergency response resources,” the city warned. Current Bolt robotaxis have repeatedly blocked city streets, including a fire truck responding to a fire at multiple alarms, the city claims. Cruise declined to comment on the incident.
When these cars stop in unexpected places, a human can come and drive them, restoring traffic flow. However, that won’t be the case with the Cruise Origin, which the city says has the potential to undermine public confidence in automated driving technology.
“The Origin is much larger and heavier than the [Chevrolet Bolt] and has a very different shape. While the size and shape of Origin provide clear benefits, they can also exacerbate risks,” City wrote.
Part of the problem is that the Cruise Origin has no space for a human driver. A human can pull a stopped car to the side of the road.
This is not the case with Origin, which does not have these basic controls for a person. A tow truck should pick up the vehicle if it breaks down, the city understands.
“If our cars encounter a situation where they cannot continue safely, they turn on their hazard warning lights and we turn them back on or recover them as quickly as possible. It could be due to a mechanical issue like a flat tire, road condition or a technical issue,” Cruise said in a statement.
When faced with a situation in which they are unsure of the right decision, cruisers essentially become paralyzed by indecision, the city said.
“Cruise has informed us that when a Cruise AV is faced with circumstances in which it is uncertain of the best response, it ‘falls back’ to a ‘minimum risk condition’, from which it cannot be moved only by field staff on the street,” San Francisco officials wrote.
And that’s if San Francisco can reach out to someone at Cruise to move the disabled vehicle. In some cases, Cruise employees did not recover a disabled vehicle within the time frame for recovery, according to the city.
In one case in August, the city says a dispatcher called Cruise four times in six minutes and “none of those calls were answered.” Cruise declined to comment on the incident.
“No human driver would be satisfied to own or drive a vehicle that comes to a halt at the apparent rates that occur on the streets of San Francisco,” the city added.
San Francisco also took issue with how Cruise’s robotaxis pick up and drop off passengers. He said he reviewed about 100 videos and found no examples of robotaxis moving completely out of a lane of traffic to pick up or drop off a passenger.
It highlights a promotional video of Cruise in which one of his robotaxis pulls up in a lane of traffic to drop off CEO Kyle Vogt rather than park alongside an open space on the sidewalk.
Cruise declined to comment specifically on the reviews from San Francisco.
“We will continue to work closely with NHTSA throughout their review process to ensure the safe and responsible deployment of this technology,” Cruise spokeswoman Hannah Lindow said in a statement. “We are proud that the overwhelming majority of public comments submitted on the Cruise Origin are positive, highlighting the vehicle’s durability and affordability benefits and support for American jobs.”
The petition comments include positive remarks from some disability advocates like the National Federation of the Blind and some private citizens who have self-identified as disabled. There were also comments from tech advocacy groups, business groups, Cruise and GM as well as a person who identified himself as a Cruise lobbyist.
San Francisco said his comments neither support nor oppose the granting of the petition. He described being “excited” by the potential of automated driving to improve safety and looked forward to when it will prove safer than humans.
The National Association of City Transportation Officials, which represents 91 transit agencies, was more critical, suggesting that NHTSA should not grant GM’s exemption. He also objected to Ford receiving a similar NHTSA exemption for robotaxis. Ford declined to comment on the critics. NHTSA has not yet made a decision regarding this exemption.
NACTO said the petitions do not show that the robotaxis will serve the public interest. He warned that without regulations requiring wheelchair accessible vehicles, “equitable services for people with disabilities are largely unrealized”.
Cruise won’t initially offer a wheelchair-accessible Origin, but eventually will, according to Lindow.
NACTO and San Francisco have both urged NHTSA to develop performance standards for robotaxis. Currently there are none.
NHTSA declined to comment on a timeline for those standards, or why it hasn’t developed them.
“NHTSA will carefully review each petition to ensure safety is a priority and will consider each petition’s impacts on equity, the environment, and whether it expands access for people with disabilities. NHTSA will consider public comments received on the petitions in the decision-making process,” the agency said in a statement.
While San Francisco and NACTO were critical of robotaxi exemptions, not all city governments were. Phoenix, who worked with Cruise on a Walmart product delivery partnership, was much more enthusiastic in his comment on the waiver request.
Mayor Kate Gallego wrote, “We believe it’s critical that this technology, and the jobs and economic benefits associated with it, stay here in the United States, for the benefit of American workers and communities.”
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