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The state Department of Motor Vehicles halted operation of the self-driving cars in San Francisco because of concerns over how the company handled a crash with a pedestrian.
One of the largest efforts in the country to test self-driving cars in real traffic came to a sudden halt Tuesday, after California regulators blocked Cruise from operating robotaxis in San Francisco until further notice because of how the company and one of its vehicles responded to a crash with a pedestrian earlier this month.
The order could have major ramifications for the emerging autonomous vehicle industry. At the very least, it puts Cruise, a General Motors subsidiary with autonomous vehicles being tested in half a dozen U.S. cities, under increased scrutiny from regulators, journalists and the public.
San Francisco elected officials and emergency responders have long complained about the behavior of Cruise’s vehicles. They say the robotaxis stop unexpectedly, drive through crime scenes and block fire trucks and ambulances. But the decision on how or whether autonomous vehicles can operate in California is up to state officials, who have been more deferential to the auto companies.
Cruise disputes several key allegations that California officials made in announcing the suspension. But ultimately whether the company can be trusted to provide accurate information could determine the fate of its whole business, said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who specializes in autonomous vehicles.
“The only way that we can really measure whether these systems are safe, before they get into crashes, is by asking whether we trust the companies who are putting them on the road,” Smith said. “It’s only those companies that have the expertise and the data and the resources to tell us what they’re doing, why they think it’s reasonably safe and why we should believe them. And if a company isn’t trustworthy, then they don’t have any business testing on our roads.”
The California Department of Motor Vehicles, the agency that oversees driverless vehicles in the state, suspended Cruise’s license following an Oct. 2 incident when one of the company’s cars ran over a pedestrian. The episode started when a driver in a Nissan Sentra crashed into a pedestrian on Market Street, sending her flying into the path of a Cruise vehicle. The driverless car then ran over the woman and proceeded to pull over to the side of the road with her trapped underneath it for 20 feet, reaching a speed of 7 mph before stopping. Firefighters had to use the “jaws of life” to remove the unidentified woman, who is in serious condition at a local hospital, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
After the crash, Cruise officials showed DMV regulators, police and several members of the media snippets of video to prove that the driver of the Sentra—not the Cruise vehicle—first hit the pedestrian. (The driver of the Sentra fled the scene.) But the company did not share video with the DMV of the driverless vehicle moving with the woman still underneath it. The state agency only learned of the missing footage when federal investigators brought it to their attention.
“Cruise’s omission hinders the ability of the department to effectively and timely evaluate the safe operation of Cruise’s vehicles and puts the safety of the public at risk,” wrote Bernard Soriano, the DMV’s deputy director of policy, in the order. The decision, however, does not prevent Cruise from operating autonomous vehicles with a safety driver behind the wheel.
In a statement, Cruise said it “proactively” shared information—including “full video”—about the crash with the agencies that regulate it, including the California DMV, the California Public Utilities Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It said that its vehicle reacted to the pedestrian deflected into its path “within 460 milliseconds, faster than most human drivers, and braked aggressively to minimize the impact.”
The company also defended the vehicle’s pull-over maneuver after the impact.
“After a collision, Cruise AVs are designed to perform a maneuver to minimize the safety risks to the extent possible within the driving context. This is called achieving a minimal risk condition, and it’s required under California regulations and encouraged under federal [autonomous vehicle] guidance,” the company wrote. “The specific maneuver, such as coming to an immediate stop, pulling over out of lane of travel, or pulling out of traffic after exiting an intersection, is highly dependent on the driving context as well as the Cruise AV’s driving capabilities in the moment.”
But regulators are taking an increasingly close look at Cruise’s vehicles following several incidents in San Francisco. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an investigation earlier this month into how the vehicles interact with pedestrians. In August, Cruise agreed to cut its fleet in the city by half at the recommendation of the state DMV, because one of its cars collided with an emergency vehicle.
Smith, the South Carolina law professor, said the allegation that Cruise held back information from regulators is “far more serious” than the issue of whether the vehicle operated properly after the crash.
“Safety is a marriage rather than a wedding,” he said. “A trustworthy company shares its safety philosophy, makes a promise to the public and keeps that promise.”
A lot of companies have developed vehicles that can drive themselves down the road, Smith said, but the decision of when they are ready to travel in public “probably says more about a company’s confidence and risk tolerance than it does about the actual capability of the system.”
Cruise currently offers passengers rides in Austin, Houston and Phoenix. As it expands, officials in other states might increase their scrutiny of Cruise, but few have as robust of a regulatory process for overseeing autonomous vehicles as California, according to Smith.
In 2018, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey suspended Uber from operating its autonomous vehicles in the state after one of them killed a pedestrian. It was unclear whether the governor had the legal authority to do so, Smith said, but Uber “saw the writing on the wall.” Eventually, it shut down its autonomous vehicle operations, under intense public scrutiny.
The same thing could happen to Cruise.
“Other states could use existing legal tools like yanking registrations or finding a vehicle to be unsafe or concluding that a vehicle was recklessly driving to restrict the right of some of these vehicles to operate,” he said. State officials could also pull company officials in for “some pretty harsh conversation about why [they] deserve any benefit of the doubt, given the allegations that have been made against [them], particularly with respect to this lack of trustworthiness,” he said.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.