Feds Investigating Cruise’s Autonomous Vehicles Amid Safety Concerns

Meanwhile, entire fleet in San Francisco suspended

A driverless Cruise car crossing Congress Avenue (Courtesy of Marshall Farthing)

Amid a year of expansion to Miami, Nashville, and elsewhere, General Motors’ Cruise driverless cars have become ubiquitous Downtown and notorious for behaving strangely – so much so that the feds are now looking into the company.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced last week that they are opening a safety-defect probe into nearly 600 driverless cars, due to pedestrian safety concerns.

The investigation stems from four reports of Cruise-related accidents that NHTSA received or saw via social media videos. In one incident that occurred in Cruise’s home city of San Francisco, a woman was hit by a regular driver and then again by a Cruise vehicle that came to a stop on top of her; rescue crews had to lift the car off. In Austin, the Chronicle reported Cruise vehicles veering into the bike lane earlier this year. This is the second time Cruise has been investigated by the NHTSA, after it opened a probe into 240 cars in December over reports of three crashes, two of which resulted in injuries. That probe is still pending – according to a recent report, NHTSA isn’t very timely in its investigations, and in 2021 only closed 12.5% of them.

Meanwhile, the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which issues Cruise permits to operate, suspended Cruise operations in San Francisco this Tuesday. Cruise had already cut its fleet in half in response to the California DMV’s investigation, and now is fully unable to operate in that city. But this is Texas, and state statute allows autonomous vehicles to operate, rather than a permitting process like California’s. The Austin Transportation Department can offer Cruise advice as they enter the market, but neither they nor the Texas DMV can regulate – despite ATD having received 43 complaints since July. There are 125 cars operating in Austin, meaning around a third of the fleet has generated a complaint.

Those complaints range from cars ignoring police traffic direction, to blocking traffic, to more concerning accounts of near misses: In a report from Sept. 2, a person parked on the side of the road for a medical call saw a Cruise car get uncomfortably close to the fire truck helping them: “It is very alarming,” the statement read. “The Cruise vehicle’s actions are not predictable and there is no mutual communication with them to ensure we are having an understanding of the next moves of each other.” One West Austin neighborhood has started a petition asking Cruise to limit drives in residential neighborhoods and enhance safety.

In response to the Chronicle’s request for comment, Cruise stressed that their vehicles are actually better than human drivers when it comes to safety: In their own data collection for their first million miles, Cruise found that AVs were involved in 65% fewer collisions overall. “Cruise’s safety record over 5 million miles continues to outperform comparable human drivers at a time when pedestrian injuries and deaths are at an all-time high,” a spokesperson wrote. “Cruise communicates regularly with NHTSA and has consistently cooperated with each of NHTSA’s requests for information – whether associated with an investigation or not – and we plan to continue doing so.”

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