The California Department of Motor Vehicles has suspended Cruise's deployment of driverless testing permits.
The move came after Cruise, General Motors’ driverless taxi venture, updated the software on its fleet of robotaxis to make them better equipped to handle encounters with emergency vehicles. The update followed several incidents involving the company's Chevrolet Bolt EVs.
About the Incidents
Two incidents happened just one week after California regulators approved robotaxi service to operate 24/7 in San Francisco, according to CNBC.
On Aug. 14, the San Francisco Fire Department claimed that two Cruise vehicles delayed an ambulance's response after a deadly accident because they were blocking an intersection. A pedestrian was hit and later died.
According to NBC Bay Area, Cruise pushed back against the fire department's narrative, saying that onboard video showed the first vehicle clearing the area once the light turned green and the second vehicle stopping in a lane to yield to first responders who were directing traffic. A Cruise spokesperson said the ambulance had a clear path and passed the AV and other vehicles.
In another incident, at about 10:00 p.m. on Aug. 17 in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, one of Cruise's vehicles entered an intersection on a green light and was struck by an emergency vehicle that appeared to be en route to an emergency scene. According to KION 46, authorities said the truck had lights and sirens activated at the time of the crash.
On Oct. 2, a pedestrian was struck by a human-driven car and thrown into the path of a Cruise vehicle, according to KRON4. She was dragged down the street before the vehicle could come to a stop.
On Oct. 24, Cruise released a detailed review of the incident, saying that when the victim was thrown into the vehicle's path, the AV "biased rightward before braking aggressively, but still made contact with the pedestrian. 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 ft."
Cruise stated that its team proactively shared information with the California DMV, California Public Utilities Commision, and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration including full video, and has stayed in close contact with regulators to answer questions.
After incidents involving its vehicles, Cruise performs simulations to test its AV's behavior compared to human drivers. In this case, Cruise stated that the simulations showed that had it been one of its own AVs rather than a human driver, the AV would have detected and avoided the pedestrian, allowing the pedestrian to continue on their way.
Cruise reiterated its view of AV safety, saying in part, "With over 5 million miles of driving, our safety record shows that our AVs are safer than a human benchmark in dense, urban environments — but our safety work is never done, and we remain deeply committed to continuously improving our safety performance on a daily basis."
Details on the Permit Suspension
The California DMV's decision came after an investigation into the recent incidents. In a statement, the DMV said,
"Public safety remains the California DMV’s top priority, and the department’s autonomous vehicle regulations provide a framework to facilitate the safe testing and deployment of this technology on California public roads. When there is an unreasonable risk to public safety, the DMV can immediately suspend or revoke permits. There is no set time for a suspension.
The California DMV today notified Cruise that the department is suspending Cruise’s autonomous vehicle deployment and driverless testing permits, effective immediately. The DMV has provided Cruise with the steps needed to apply to reinstate its suspended permits, which the DMV will not approve until the company has fulfilled the requirements to the department’s satisfaction. This decision does not impact the company’s permit for testing with a safety driver."
As noted in the statement, the suspension applies only to vehicles with no "safety driver," meaning there is no one in the driver's seat to take over if needed.
In a statement Cruise sent to CNN Business, the company noted that it proactively reached out to both state and federal safety regulators following the incident involving the pedestrian who was run over.
What's in Cruise's Software Update
In an Oct. 12 blog post by Cruise, the company stated that there were several software additions:
- Preemptive AV slowing during siren detection: While Cruise said the AVs are already designed to recognize emergency vehicle lights and sirens and yield to them while following traffic rules, the vehicles will now start to slow down even earlier, to 70% of the posted speed limit at an early indication of a nearby siren when the emergency vehicles are not yet visible.
- Improved emergency vehicle prediction behavior: Cruise enhanced the AV’s ability to predict if a fire truck will continue to drive through an intersection against a red light, while also factoring in the speed at which that will happen.
- Enhanced audio detection: Cruise enhanced the car’s existing siren detection capability to be able to more rapidly detect a much larger diversity of different siren types & variations. "This improvement will ultimately help our cars better determine if an emergency vehicle is nearby, and how best to respond," according to Cruise.
- Intersection stop regions: When approaching intersections, Cruise's system will identify additional early stopping locations if the AV detects either lights or sirens.
- Emergency scene recognition: Cruise improved the technology its AVs use to recognize an emergency scene. "We’ve improved our existing Emergency Scene Recognition System to better detect such scenes earlier and from farther away," Cruise noted.
- Parked emergency vehicle bypassing: The AV’s design was improved to more effectively bypass double-parked emergency vehicles to help prevent the AV from getting stuck behind the emergency vehicles and blocking traffic.
- Multiple alert notifications: Cruise noted that it has worked closely with police and fire to find solutions to be notified of emergency situations. The company has set up email alerts directly from San Francisco Emergency Services for emergency scenes that need to be avoided. In addition, dispatch can call Cruise's teams 24/7 with updates if necessary. These new outreach methods build off of the already existing critical support line that’s been available to first responders.
- Fire hose and caution tape detection: Earlier this year, Cruise rolled out product improvements that enhance identification of fire hoses and caution tape. Now, the company is improving its ability to identify very low-lying deflated fire hoses.
Cruise stated that it recognizes there may be times when unique and unpredictable situations are unavoidable. The company has made operational modifications that can aid the AV to get out of the way as quickly as possible:
- Improved scene exit: Remote assistance advisors have always worked to resolve issues expeditiously, but Cruise has made changes to enhance their abilities to clear the scene even more quickly.
- Conditional routing: Improved tooling capabilities for Cruise's remote assistance advisors to assist with AV routing and maneuvering in situations such as following the directions given by law enforcement.
- First responder emergency access: In emergency situations, Cruise's teams will allow first responders to access the AV and manually move the vehicle.
"Through continued training with law enforcement, firefighters, and EMS we can leverage our cooperative relationship to educate and receive feedback. Our goal is to enhance the AV’s responsiveness in various emergency situations and ensure clear understanding and predictability of the car’s behavior," Cruise's blog post stated.
On Oct. 17, NHTSA opened a probe into whether Cruise is taking sufficient precautions with its autonomous robotaxis to safeguard pedestrians.
Reuters reported that NHTSA's preliminary evaluation covers nearly 600 Cruise vehicles and is the first step before the agency could seek to force a recall.
Editor's Note: This story was updated on Oct. 25 to reflect the California DMV's suspension of Cruise's driverless vehicle testing permits.