GM’s self-driving car subsidiary Cruise said earlier this year it wants to add 5,000 more robotaxis to the streets of America, including in San Francisco, where it currently maintains a fleet of fewer than 100 cars. But the city says the robot hubs are sometimes becoming a nightmare to drive and warns that a much larger fleet could worsen safety and traffic.
Cruise San Francisco began offering ridehail service from 10pm to 5:30am in the city earlier this year for a fee. The model resembles Uber and Lyft, but is based on driverless Chevrolet Bolts that maneuver with AI-powered software and sensors. Cruise sought approval for a new vehicle that could dramatically increase the size of San Francisco’s fleet, more than 50 times, as it strives to reach $1 trillion in revenue by 2025.
But San Francisco has concerns ranging from general traffic to dangerous situations already found, the city said in a 36-page response to a request for public comments from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (or NHTSA) last week. ) in response to GM’s request for an exemption from some federal safety rules for its new self-driving vehicle, known as the Cruise Origin.
Unlike the existing Chevrolet Bolts, the Origin will not have human controls like a steering wheel and pedals. Cruise requires an exemption from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s vehicle safety standards, which were designed for the era of human drivers.
The city said it was “disappointed” with the request because it “generally assumes that GM’s autonomous technology will improve the safety of the transportation system, rather than making a strong and persuasive case.”
The first concern, traffic, not just the surge of new cars that GM wants to put on city streets. Those self-driving cars that drive in this way are also driven by those without a steering wheel or pedals for a human operator.
Or don’t drive.
San Francisco says that when GM began rolling out its fleet of driverless Chevrolet Bolts on city streets, the 911 calls started pouring in. In late May 2022, city officials began noticing an uptick in calls related to Crucifixion vehicles. City police began to see disabled autonomous vehicles sitting, blocking travel lanes. 911 callers reported Cruise vehicles driving erratically, in one case signaling in one direction but going another, or parking in front of transit vehicles.
And then the backups started.
“The most common 9-1-1 complaint [regarding Cruise vehicles] Cruise AVs have been known to block travel lanes for an extended period 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 because a Cruise vehicle is stopping in the middle of the road. There can be many of them at the same time.
Thirteen Cruise robotaxis stopped at once on a major street in June, the city said. Two other “large group incidents” were reported in San Francisco in August. Cruise declined to comment on claims of “group riots” involving his vehicles.
A third of the 28 emergency calls made between May 28 and September 5 “involved inoperable Cruise AVs and affected multiple lanes of travel.” Although the city says it lacks reliable data on the number of incidents, they could take hours.
San Francisco officials have identified 20 more such incidents on social media, they said in the report.
A large fleet and an extended schedule “can quickly deplete emergency response resources,” the City warns. The current Bolt robotaxi has repeatedly blocked city streets, including a fire truck responding to a multi-alarm fire, the city says. Cruise declined to comment on the incident.
When these cars stop in unexpected places, a human can come along to take the wheel and drive, restoring traffic flow. However, that won’t be the case with Cruise Origin, which the city says has the potential to undermine public trust in automated driving technology.
“It is much bigger and heavier than the original [Chevrolet Bolt] and it has a very different shape. While the size and shape of the source offers clear benefits, it can increase the risks,” the city wrote.
Part of the problem is that Cruise Origin doesn’t have room for a human driver. A human can pull a stationary car to the side of the road.
Not so with Origins, where a person lacks these basic controls. A tow truck should come to pick up the vehicle if it becomes disabled, the council understands.
“If our cars encounter a situation where they are unable to proceed safely, they turn on their hazard lights and restart or pick them up as quickly as possible. This could be due to a mechanical problem, such as flat tyres, road conditions or a technical issue,” Cruise said in a statement.
Faced with uncertainty about the right course of action, Cruise vehicles are essentially stuck with indecision, the city said.
“Cruise has informed us that when a Cruise AV encounters a situation where it is unsure of the best response, it ‘falls back’ to a ‘minimum risk situation’ from which it can only be taken by street field personnel.” It was written by San Francisco officials.
And that’s if someone at San Francisco Cruise can be reached to move the disabled vehicle. In some cases, Cruise employees did not tow disabled vehicles within the estimated recovery time, 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 with owning or using a vehicle that is immobilized at the apparent rates that occur on the streets of San Francisco,” added the City.
San Francisco also questioned how Cruise robotaxis pick up and drop off passengers. He said he reviewed about 100 videos and found no example of the robot hub completely pulling out of a travel lane to pick up or drop off passengers.
It highlights a Cruise promotional video in which one of its robotic shafts stops in a travel lane to drop off CEO Kyle Vogt, instead of exiting the open rim area.
Cruise declined to comment specifically on San Francisco’s criticism.
“We will continue to work closely with NHTSA through 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 about Cruise Origin are positive, emphasizing the vehicle’s sustainability and accessibility benefits and support for American jobs.”
Comments on the petition include positive comments from disability advocates such as the National Federation of the Blind and from private citizens who said they were 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 its comments neither endorse nor oppose the application. He described himself as “excited” about the potential of automated driving to improve safety, and hoped to see it become safer than humans.
The National Association of City Transportation Officials, which represents 91 city transit agencies, was more critical, suggesting that NHTSA should not grant GM an exemption. Ford also opposed receiving a similar NHTSA exemption for the robotaxis. Ford declined to comment on the criticism. NHTSA has not yet made a decision on this exception.
NACTO said the petitions do not show that robotaxis will serve the public interest. He warned that without the 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 asked NHTSA to develop performance standards for robotaxis. Currently there is no
NHTSA declined to comment on the timeline for those standards, or why it hasn’t developed them.
“NHTSA will carefully review each request to ensure safety is a priority and will consider each request’s impacts on equity, the environment, and whether it expands access for people with disabilities. NHTSA will consider public comments received on requests in its decision-making process,” the agency said. in a note
While San Francisco and NACTO were critical of the robotaxi exemptions, not all city governments were. Phoenix, which has partnered with Cruise to deliver Walmart goods, was more forthcoming in commenting on the exemption request.
Mayor Kate Gallego wrote that “we believe it is imperative that this technology, and the associated jobs and economic benefits, be here in the United States for the benefit of American workers and communities.”