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Driverless cars from General Motors (GM) subsidiary Cruise, built atop the 2021 acquisition of startup Voyage, are a common sight in San Francisco these days, as that is where the company is testing and offering the nation’s first paid driverless ride-hail service in a major metropolitan area.
But Cruise’s plans have just encountered a major roadblock: today, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) publicly announced it had immediately suspended Cruise’s driverless car testing and deployment permits citing “unreasonable risk to public safety.”
Read the Cali DMV’s statement
As the Cali DMV wrote on its website:
“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.
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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.“
The Cali DMV cited several violations made by Cruise, including “The manufacturer has misrepresented any information related to safety of the autonomous technology of its vehicles,” and “Any act or omission of the manufacturer or one of its agents, employees, contractors, or designees which the department finds makes the conduct of autonomous vehicle testing on public roads by the manufacturer an unreasonable risk to the public.”
However, these violations are vague and could apply to any number of different specific scenarios. The DMV did not specify further about the suspension on its website.
More details provided in letter obtained by Vice
Vice Media obtained the full Order of Suspension letter sent by the Cali DMV to Cruise and published it online, revealing that, damningly, Cruise withheld a portion of video evidence from authorities of one of its driverless vehicles colliding with and dragging a pedestrian at least 20 feet across across the street on Oct. 2 and 930 pm local time.
As the letter spells out:
“A pedestrian was struck, while in the crosswalk, by an unknown third-party vehicle and fell into the path of a Cruise Autonomous Vehicle (AV). The AV initiated a hard-braking maneuver and came to a complete stop. During the course of performing the hard-braking maneuver, the AV collided with and ran over the pedestrian. After coming to a complete stop, the AV subsequently attempted to perform a pullover maneuver while the pedestrian was underneath the vehicle. The AV traveled approximately 20 feet and reached a speed of 7 mph before coming to a subsequent and final stop. The pedestrian remained under the vehicle.
“On October 3, 2023. representatives ofthe Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Highway Patrol met with representatives from Cruise to discuss the accident. During the meeting, the department was shown video footage of the accident captured by the AV’s onboard cameras. The video footage presented to the department ended with the AV initial stop following the hard-braking maneuver. Footage of the subsequent movement of the AV to perform a pullover maneuver was not shown to the department and Cruise did not disclose that any additional movement of the vehicle had occurred after the initial stop of the vehicle. The department only learned of the AV’s subsequent movement via discussion with another government agency. The department requested Cruise provide a copy of the video with the additional footage, which was received by the department on October 13, 2023.”
The letter goes on to state that Cruise may request a hearing before the Cali DMV director by submitting a letter to the agency within 60 days.
Cruise responds, defending safety goals
On its website, Cruise posted about the incident today, writing: “shortly after the incident, our team proactively shared information with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), California Public Utilities Commision (CPUC), and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), including the full video, and have stayed in close contact with regulators to answer their questions.” It’s unclear how this statement and the claims in Cali DMV’s letter can both be correct.
Meanwhile, the company has reportedly suspended its entire service — even those with safety drivers — in San Francisco and a spokesperson told Vice that ““Ultimately, we develop and deploy autonomous vehicles in an effort to save lives…Our thoughts continue to be with the victim as we hope for a rapid and complete recovery.”
There was no explanation for the omission of video evidence to the California DMV as described in the letter. VentureBeat has reached out to Cruise for additional information and will update when we receive a response.
Earlier this year at the VentureBeat Transform conference in San Francisco, Cruise executive vice president (EVP) of engineering Mo Elshenawy joined us on stage to describe some of its driverless AI system’s failsafe and fallback maneuvers, stating “the safe thing if you cover a sensor or damage a sensor is for the vehicle to pull over, and and wait for someone to come in and clear that hazard,” which is clearly what the vehicle in the above case seemed to be attempting as well.
Aside from the risks of the particular situation and damage to the victim, the incident also comes at a very bad time for Cruise and its parent company GM from a business sense. The United Auto Workers (UAW) union today struck a major GM manufacturing plant in Texas, and in its latest earnings report, the losses attributed by GM to Cruise increased to $732 million for that period alone, and a reported total of $1.9 billion losses year-to-date.
Where the news leaves Cruise and driverless vehicle tech
Cruise’s decision to turn its home city of San Francisco into a testbed has also not been without controversy and criticism before: the company has been dinged for having multiple vehicles line up and stop in streets, blocking passage, and has been accused of hindering fire and emergency responders. Activists and pranksters have taken to putting orange construction cones on the hoods of the vehicles, causing them to automatically stop.
Cruise is not the only driverless car company testing AI-powered vehicles without human drivers on the streets of the city. Google spinoff Waymo also won a permit to test and charge for driverless rides in August of this year. With Cruise suspended, now it’s the only game in town for members of the public looking to order paid, fully driverless rides.
Automaker Tesla, which offers a “Full Self-Driving” service, is a Level 2 autonomy provider that still requires the driver to remain in their seat alert, attentive, and ready to take over. Cruise and Waymo are pursuing Level 3 and 4 autonomy, which allows passengers to sit back and allow the vehicle to drive them without direct intervention, as defined by standards group SAE International (formerly known as the Society of Automotive Engineers).
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