Self-driving car services want to expand in San Francisco despite recent setbacks

Self-driving car services want to expand in San Francisco despite recent setbacks

Self-driving car services want to expand in San Francisco despite recent setbacks

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Last week, a self-driving car stopped in the middle of a busy street during the morning rush hour in San Francisco, stalling traffic for almost two miles. The car, which was being driven by Waymo, did not leave the intersection until company technicians arrived about 10 minutes later and manually chased it away.


With services in San Francisco and Phoenix, Waymo, the self-driving car company owned by Google parent company Alphabet, is one of two companies operating so-called robotaxis without human drivers behind the wheel. The other, Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, offers service in San Francisco.

The services are the culmination of more than 10 years of research, development and testing by both companies. After investing billions of dollars in technology, the two announce that they will soon launch driverless services in other cities as well. But as automated vehicles still struggle to drive themselves in some situations, some local officials wonder if the services are ready for widespread use.

The day before the Waymo car rolled out, the city of San Francisco sent letters to the California state regulator asking it to slow the expansion of services until officials gain a better understanding of the technology and its limits. The letters were reported earlier by NBC News.

After operating limited services in San Francisco for several months, the two companies sought permission from the California Public Utilities Commission to charge money for driverless rides across the city and around the clock. But until Until the services are better understood, the city said it does not want them to operate in downtown San Francisco or during morning or evening rush hours.

“If the Commission approves sweeping permits for Waymo and Cruise, the dangers and network impacts caused by planned and unplanned AV stops that clog traffic could soon affect a large percentage of all San Francisco travelers,” says one of the letters.

Cruise and Waymo said the letters are part of their efforts to expand services in the city. “We have long enjoyed a healthy dialogue with California city officials and government agencies,” said Katherine Barna, spokesperson for Waymo.

The City of San Francisco declined to comment beyond what is said in its letters. “We welcome any suggestions on safety,” Cruise spokesman Aaron McLear said.

The letters were the latest talks between the companies, San Francisco officials and regulators.

Last year, Cruise began offering paid rides in driverless cars in parts of San Francisco between 10 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. Waymo now offers unpaid rides without a driver.But both companies still need regulatory approval before launching commercial driverless services across San Francisco. Waymo began offering paid rides in downtown Phoenix at the end of the year.

In August, Cruise asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the main federal regulator, to approve large-scale testing of a new version of his self-driving car called Origin, which doesn’t include a driver’s seat or steering wheel.But San Francisco officials have also expressed concern over the plan.

The plan, which could put up to 5,000 of the new vehicles on the streets within two years, makes Cruise’s past problems “significantly more substantial,” the city said. If the company does not significantly improve the performance of its technologies, it “could rapidly exhaust emergency response resources and undermine public confidence in all automated driving technologies.”

Self-driving cars can monitor pedestrians, change lanes and turn right. But they may struggle to cope with more complicated or unusual situations, like unprotected left turns and broken signal lights that engineers call “extreme cases” because they don’t happen as frequently as usual. other scenarios.

“Sometimes these cars just need a human to help them out of a sticky situation,” said Phil Koopman, a Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor who specializes in self-driving vehicles.

Waymo has been operating driverless service in suburban Arizona since late 2020. But that’s very different from a congested city. “If you’re disabled on a quiet suburban street, you’re not in the way,” said Matt Wansley, a professor at New York’s Cardozo School of Law who specializes in emerging automotive technologies. “If you’re in town, that’s a big deal.”

The Waymo car that stopped in the middle of a San Francisco intersection last week entered a very complex and busy intersection “due to temporary road closures that prevented use of the intended route”, said Waymo.

When a car can’t handle a situation on its own, remote technicians can send the car additional information that can help restart it. And if that doesn’t work, the company has to send a team to recover the car.

In late June, Cruise caused a similar traffic jam in San Francisco. The company was struggling to communicate with many of the cars in its fleet, and as they pulled up in one area of ​​the city, all lined up, they blocked traffic until technicians arrived and got them moving again .

In September, five stranded cruise vehicles blocked the path of the city bus, delaying its 45 passengers for at least 13 minutes. His cars also interfered with firefighting efforts in the city, according to the letter from San Francisco officials. A car blocked a fire truck heading towards a blaze. Firefighters smashed the window of another car to prevent it from rolling over their fire hoses.

The cruisers did not cause any life-threatening injuries or deaths.

Following such incidents, NHTSA, the federal regulator, recently launched an investigation into the company’s cars. The agency is concerned that the vehicles “could strand vehicle passengers in dangerous places, such as lanes or intersections, and become an unexpected obstacle for other road users.”

Cruise has repeatedly said he is trying hard to avoid trouble. But an independent review of the software systems that run Cruise’s fleet of cars indicated that those software systems aren’t suited for the kind of widespread services Cruise hopes to operate.

This review, completed last summer and recently obtained by The New York Times, looked at the systems that allow the company to communicate with its vehicles and provide remote assistance when the cars cannot fix problems on their own. themselves.

“Baseline fleet systems present significant stability, responsiveness, and scalability challenges that now present fundamental issues for the business,” the study states.

Conducted by consultants from IBM, the review found that the systems, designed as a way to manage a small fleet of cars including safety drivers, are not suitable for a large fleet where drivers have been removed. “Further scaling with the current platform will potentially exacerbate existing issues,” the review states. “The ability to simultaneously improve the current platform while stabilizing it is in question.”

A new system would require an additional investment of $10 million to $20 million and would likely not be completed before the end of this year, according to the review. This is a relatively small outlay given that the company spent more than $860 million developing its technology in the first half of last year.

Mr. McLear, Cruise’s spokesperson, said the company has addressed or resolved nearly all of the issues discussed in the review. “It’s an outdated report,” he said.

Even as Cruise redesigns and rebuilds its management software, there will be times when the company will have to send a team to recover cars if they get stuck. The same goes for Waymo, said company spokeswoman Julia Ilina. Companies also have to send technicians when cars break down in more traditional ways, such as a flat tire or a traffic accident.

Because of these limitations — and the hundreds of millions of dollars the companies spend on research and development — it’s unclear how the services will become viable businesses.

“The question is: does it make economic sense?” said Dr. Koopman, of Carnegie Mellon. “They pull the drivers out from the front of the car. But if they have that many people in a building waiting for the cars to break down, they really haven’t solved anything. »


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