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NHTSA Investigating the Safety of GM's Cruise Autonomous Robotaxis

The Associated Press broke the story. Federal investigators are looking into cases where the autonomous vehicles stopped abruptly and may have stranded passengers.

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Just last week, Cruise LLC received the go ahead from a California state agency to start carrying passengers during the day, not just at night. Currently, the Chevrolet Bolt robotaxis only operate at night. There is still one more hurdle before the autonomous vehicles get full approval. Now, the Associated Press is reporting that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating the autonomous vehicles, owned primarily by General Motors, for stopping too quickly. There are also concerns that the vehicles can stop and strand passengers.

What Are the Cruise Robotaxi Concerns

According to the AP, three of the Bolt self-driving vehicles were hit from behind after the vehicles stopped suddenly. At the time, Cruise still had human drivers riding along for safety reasons.

NHTSA also has several reports of the Cruise robotaxis without human safety drivers becoming immobilized in San Francisco traffic, possibly stranding passengers and blocking lanes. One report came in shortly after the autonomous testing phase began. More than a dozen of the self-driving vehicles gathered at the same location blocking the street. Police were frustrated at the time because they couldn’t figure out how to contact Cruise to move the driverless vehicles.

There have been two reports of injuries related to the hard braking, including a bicyclist seriously hurt last March, according to the NHTSA crash database. NHTSA will try to determine how often the problems happen with the 242 Cruise autonomous vehicles.

“With these data, NHTSA can respond to safety concerns involving these technologies through further investigation and enforcement,” the agency said in a statement to the AP.

Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt told The Associated Press that the company is fully cooperating with the NHTSA. “I am happy to help educate them on the safety of our products,” Vogt said. “Regulators are doing their job. They are scrutinizing things as they should, asking lots of questions.”

Cruise's Safety Record

So far, Cruise vehicles have driven nearly early 700,000 autonomous miles in San Francisco without causing any life-threatening injuries or deaths.

“This is against the backdrop of over 40,000 deaths each year on American roads,” Cruise spokesman Drew Pusateri wrote in a statement to AP. “There’s always a balance between healthy regulatory scrutiny and the innovation we desperately need to save lives.”

He said police didn’t issue tickets in any of the crashes, and that in each case, the autonomous vehicle was responding to aggressive or erratic behavior of other road users. “The AV was working to minimize collision severity and risk of harm,” Pusateri wrote.

In the clogged traffic incidents, Pusateri wrote that whenever Cruise technology isn’t extremely confident in moving, it’s designed to be conservative, turning on hazard lights and coming to a safe stop.

“If needed, Cruise personnel are physically dispatched to retrieve the vehicle as quickly as possible,” Pusateri wrote. Such stoppages are rare and have not caused any crashes, he wrote.

GM Owns 80 Percent of Cruise LLC

GM Chair and CEO Mary Barra took her first ride in the autonomous Cruise Bolt last January and called it, “Nothing short of incredible.” Barra tweeted about the ride. “I took my first @Cruise driverless ride in San Francisco with @kvogt, and it was nothing short of incredible. This is the type of experience we used to dream about, and now with Cruise, our autonomous future is here. Congrats, Cruise team!”

Traffic Concerns Because of Cruise Vehicles

Cruise vehicles may strand passengers in unsafe locations, such as travel lanes or intersections, increasing the risk to exiting passengers. And they can become obstacles to other road users, causing them to make unsafe maneuvers to avoid collisions. “The vehicles may also present a secondary safety risk, by obstructing the paths of emergency response vehicles and thereby delaying their emergency response times,” NHTSA said in the document.

The municipal transportation agency, in comments to NHTSA, said that starting in May, the city began to notice 911 calls from people who were inconvenienced by Cruise operations. Some city police officers also saw Cruise vehicles disabled in travel lanes. One incident in June involved 13 Cruise vehicles stopped on a major road. Two other large blockages were reported in August, the agency said.

The probe comes at an important time for Cruise, which in June started charging passengers for autonomous rides without human safety drivers in part of San Francisco at night. It’s also a critical time for the autonomous vehicle industry. Currently, Google spinoff Waymo has a robotaxi service in the Phoenix area and wants to expand.

San Francisco-based Cruise intends to expand the service to Phoenix and Austin, Texas. The startup owned by GM has been testing autonomous Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles for several years.

In September Cruise revealed that it recalled 80 of its driverless vehicles for a software update after one of the cars was involved in a crash that caused minor injuries.

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Mary Conway is a professional automotive journalist and has decades of experience specializing in automotive news analysis. She covered the Detroit Three for more than twenty years for the ABC affiliate, in Detroit. Her affection for the Motor City comes naturally. Her father ran a gas station while Mary was growing up, in Wisconsin.

Follow Mary Conway at @maryconwaymedia and send her car news tips for future stories.

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