The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has suspended Cruise’s permit to operate driverless vehicles, citing public safety concerns.
This represents a major victory for the Alphabet-owned Waymo, as it’s now the only company within the state that’s legally allowed to offer robotaxi services. On Tuesday, the DMV said that Cruise’s suspension would take effect immediately with the company likewise stating that it would be pausing operations to examine potential improvements in how its vehicles operate.
With so much negative publicity surrounding Cruise, it’s actually a little surprising that action wasn’t taken sooner. Despite the California Public Utilities Commission’s controversial decision to allow the company to expand operations within the state, Cruise has seen San Francisco residents, public officials, and emergency services offering sustained criticisms.
Some of those issues overlap with the hurdles Waymo had to overcome while testing in Arizona. In fact, having gone through those technological growing pains may be the reason the DMV is only targeting Cruise. While there are still reports of Waymo’s autonomous vans occasionally acting erratically, most of the complaints in San Francisco have focused on Cruise vehicles.
One of the most recent incidents reportedly involved a pedestrian who was struck by another vehicle before being thrown in front of a Cruise robotaxi. But there have been dozens of other incidents where AVs failed to navigate construction areas, collided with city buses, ran over pets, impeded emergency vehicle responses, or were shut down temporarily after losing their WiFi connection.
Waymo doesn’t look to be having quite so many problems in California. But it has been operating autonomous test vehicles on public roads a little longer and there’s also been some speculation that Google (which is also owned by Alphabet) may be tweaking the algorithm to prioritize negative news about its competitor. While industrial espionage is hardly a new concept, that would be a pretty large risk for the company to take and there’s presently no evidence to support the claim.
Whatever the case, plenty of the bad press Cruise has been getting was unavoidable. On Tuesday, it attempted to explain what happened with the struck pedestrian, and the picture it painted was still pretty gruesome. Cruise stated that its AV “braked aggressively before impact because it detected a collision” taking place in the other lane. But it then attempted to pull over to avoid further damage and ended up dragging the pedestrian about 20 feet after having run them over.
The initial impact that tossed the victim in front of the vehicle is still said to be the fault of the mystery hit-and-run driver. But how the Cruise vehicle responded in the aftermath was less than ideal and presumably made things worse than they otherwise would have been.
With all AV companies operating under the premise that the implementation of their technology would eventually lead to an accident-free society, incidents like the above severely undermine the premise. Cruise has attempted to smooth things over by suggesting the incident was unavoidable as presented. But it has also asserted that there never would have been an accident if both vehicles were autonomous.
According to simulations run by the company, “had it been a Cruise AV rather than the human driver, the AV would have detected and avoided the pedestrian, and the pedestrian could have continued on their way.”
The California DMV seems unconvinced, however. The order of suspension issued on Tuesday stipulates that Cruise failed to disclose the full details of the incident to both it and the California Highway Patrol at a meeting held on October 3rd. It also appears to blame the company for how the AV responded — noting that the robotaxi “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,” it added. “The pedestrian remained under the vehicle.”
This appears to be the final straw for the DMV and it revoked Cruise’s permits citing ongoing safety concerns and an overall lack of transparency. The department said that the manufacturer (which is owned by General Motors) was fielding vehicles that are not safe for public operation and “may lack the ability to respond in a safe and appropriate manner during incidents involving a pedestrian.”
Cruise has said the relevant meeting with the DMV included showing the complete video of the pedestrian strike multiple times. It also said the department was provided with a copy of that video, which was also shared with the California Public Utilities Commission and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (the latter agency has launched its own investigation). Cruise said it remained in close contact with regulators and we also know of several media outlets who were given access to the video clip (which hasn’t yet been made publicly available) and determined that the AV may not have been able to avoid the pedestrian based on the surrounding circumstances.
That may also be the case for California’s DMV, which could explain why so much attention was given to the pedestrian being dragged after the secondary strike.
The DMV has said it supplied Cruise with a list of steps needed to apply to reinstate its suspended permits. However, it can continue operating AVs in California with safety drivers behind the wheel.
Ironically, no Cruise or Waymo driverless vehicle has been involved in any known pedestrian fatalities. In fact, the only death we’ve seen involved an Uber-owned autonomous test vehicle actually had a human safety driver. They were watching videos on their phone at the time of the crash.
California’s decision does not affect Cruise’s operations in Arizona or Texas. Those states also didn’t seem to share the problems the company has seen in California. This may simply be the result of the business having fielded more vehicles in San Francisco whereas its operations in Phoenix (where Waymo came into trouble) and Austin are comparatively smaller and more recent endeavors.
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