Monday, July 22, 2024

California:Two state agencies ground Cruise driverless cars for public safety

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A recent incident in San Francisco spurred the Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Public Utilities Commission to suspend the licenses for Cruise’s driverless cars.

Citing public safety concerns, two state agencies on Tuesday suspended driverless car company Cruise’s licenses to test and deploy its vehicles, and its ability to carry passengers, immediately grounding its fleet of about 150 robotaxis in San Francisco. 

The Department of Motor Vehicles was the first to say it had immediately suspended the General Motors-owned company’s licenses to test and deploy its fully autonomous vehicles. In response to CalMatters’ request for comment on the DMV’s move, the California Public Utilities Commission said it has also suspended Cruise’s ability to carry passengers in driverless vehicles.

Cruise, founded in San Francisco in 2013, conducted its first driverless ride in the city in 2020. It opened a fully driverless taxi service to the public in San Francisco in early 2022, in which riders can summon vehicles like they would on a ride-hailing app. That service was only available at night until this August, when the public utilities commission approved 24/7 operations.  

The DMV’s suspension notices, seen by CalMatters, show that the agency based its suspensions on an Oct. 2 incident in San Francisco in which a Cruise autonomous vehicle dragged a pedestrian who had been hit by a different vehicle right beforehand. The vehicle that first hit the woman was driven by a human who fled the scene and has not been arrested, according to various media reports.

In its notices to Cruise, the DMV notes that the next day, the company showed representatives of the DMV and the California Highway Patrol video from the vehicle’s cameras that ended with the autonomous vehicle stopping after it braked when the pedestrian fell into its path after being hit by another vehicle. But the DMV also said it was not made aware that the Cruise vehicle then tried to pull over while the pedestrian was underneath it.

“The department only learned of the AV’s subsequent movement via discussion with another government agency,” the suspension notice says. DMV spokesperson Anita Gore told CalMatters that agency was the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which last week opened its own investigation into Cruise over four safety incidents, including the Oct. 2 incident.

The DMV said in its notices that the agency then requested the additional footage from Cruise, and received it Oct. 13.

“When there is an unreasonable risk to public safety, the DMV can immediately suspend or revoke permits,” the DMV said in a news release, which also said Cruise’s suspension is partly based on a state regulation related to the following: “The manufacturer has misrepresented any information related to safety of the autonomous technology of its vehicles.”

Cruise spokesperson Hannah Lindow said Tuesday the company disputes the DMV’s contention that it did not initially show DMV representatives the full video.

“We had a meeting with the DMV on 10/3, in which we showed them the complete video multiple times,” Lindow said in an email. “They later requested a copy of the video shown on 10/3, which we provided to them.”

The DMV said in an email that it “stands by the facts contained in the order of suspension.”

Cruise also released a statement on its website in which it said it shared the full video with the officials. It also provided a description of the incident, which reads in part: “The AV detected a collision, bringing the vehicle to a stop; then attempted to pull over to avoid causing further road safety issues, pulling the individual forward approximately 20 feet.”

The company said in that statement that it plans to include the incident in future simulation tests “to allow the vehicle to better determine if it should pull over safely or stay in place.”

Cruise now has five days to request a hearing about the DMV’s suspension of its deployment license, and 60 days to request a hearing about the suspension of its driverless-testing permit.

The public utilities commission, which has also now suspended Cruise’s ability to carry passengers in the agency’s autonomous vehicle deployment and driverless pilot programs, is carrying out its own investigations into Cruise, spokesperson Terrie Prosper said. 

Though the DMV and the commission coordinate on regulation of autonomous vehicles and will continue to do so, the suspension decisions were made separately, Prosper said. 

The suspensions do not affect Cruise’s ability to test its vehicles with safety drivers, according to the DMV. The public utilities commission suspension, however, does affect the company’s ability to carry passengers even with a safety driver.

The commission’s suspension comes after it voted in early August to allow Cruise and another autonomous vehicle company, Waymo, to expand their ability to charge for robotaxi service in San Francisco at all hours. A week after that approved expansion, the DMV ordered Cruise to cut its 300-vehicle fleet in half as the agency investigated incidents involving the company’s autonomous vehicles, including a crash involving a fire truck.

In mid-August, San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu filed motions to stay the public utilities commission’s decision, citing “poor AV performance creating safety hazards and interfering with first responder operations, public transit, street construction workers, and the flow of traffic,” and said his office would also seek a rehearing. The application for the rehearing is pending, Prosper said.

Also Tuesday, labor leaders and others gathered in Los Angeles to protest Alphabet-owned Waymo’s unveiling of a test of its so-far free robotaxi service in Santa Monica and Venice last week, and a planned expansion by the company elsewhere in the area next month. They expressed concerns about safety, with some of them citing collisions involving self-driving vehicles in San Francisco, and the possible elimination of jobs.

In addition, Los Angeles City Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez plans to introduce a motion Wednesday, calling for the L.A. city attorney to join San Francisco in urging the public utilities commission to adopt more “common-sense regulations” on self-driving cars, said Nick Barnes-Baptista, a spokesperson for the councilmember. 

“We should not be putting lives at risk by allowing our city to be a test subject for the tech industry,” Soto-Martinez said in an emailed statement.

Waymo spokesperson Sandy Karp said the company encourages people “to learn more about the positive impacts Waymo’s autonomous ride hailing is having on safety, accessibility and sustainability.”

Regulation of driverless vehicles has been a hot topic in California. Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that would have regulated self-driving trucks, saying in his veto message that it was “unnecessary for the regulation and oversight of heavy-duty autonomous vehicle technology in California, as existing law provides sufficient authority to create the appropriate regulatory framework.

By Calmatters

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