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GM's Cruise revises self-driving software after San Francisco crash

Just weeks after milestone permit to charge for robotaxi rides using autonomous-driving tech

General Motors autonomous unit Cruise has issued a Safety Recall report, pulling software that governed how its AVs behave when making an unprotected left turn after one of the vehicles was involved in a crash.

An unprotected left turn is when you want to turn at an intersection where oncoming traffic (either turning right or going straight) has the right of way.

The errant software apparently caused its AV to hard-brake in the midst of its left hand turn when it incorrectly predicted that an oncoming Prius was going to turn right on a June evening in San Francisco, one of the cities in which it has permits to trial its AV tech. The Prius ultimately drove straight through the intersection, smashing into the rear passenger side of the Cruise AV.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report claimed the oncoming vehicle was traveling "well above the speed limit"  – estimated at approximately 40mph in a 25mph zone (c 64kph in a 40kph zone) – in the right-turn/bus-only lane as the Cruise AV was attempting to make its unprotected left turn.

It also noted that the police report found, among other things, the "party at most fault" for the collision was the other vehicle, because it was "traveling in the ... right turn only lane at a speed that was greater than is reasonable or prudent."

The automaker explained that its reflexive planner feature "recognized a front-end collision risk created by a speeding vehicle, which reasonably indicated that it would take a right because it was in the right hand turn lane. The Cruise AV stopped to avoid the collision risk and create a path for the other vehicle. The Cruise AV had to decide between two different risk scenarios and chose the one with the least potential for a serious collision."

According to a crash report from the California DMV [PDF] signed by Todd Brugger, VP of Global Markets at Cruise, two people were injured when the 2022 Cruise collided with a 2016 model Prius. The Cruise was towed from the scene and occupants of both vehicles received medical treatment for "allegedly minor injuries."

The company said it had disabled unprotected left turns in the fleet as well as updating the software and working with the NHTSA on mitigation. Cruise put out a new software update on July 6, 2022, that it claimed improves its automated driving system's predictive performance in several ways – and said that post-update, in the same conditions as the June 3 crash, "the ADS would have selected a different path that averted the collision." It also said it was "gradually" reintroducing the ability to make unprotected left turns in its fleet.

GM's AV unit said in the NHTSA [PDF] report that the Cruise Automated Driving Systems (ADS) software release (Delta/2022.05.13.00) had been running on 80 of its self-driving units.

We asked Cruise to comment and it said the "voluntary" filing would "not impact or change our current on-road operations." It added that "through our normal course of continuous improvements, Cruise AVs are even better equipped to prevent this singular, exceptional event."

Robotaxi permit

The crash happened in San Francisco on the evening of June 3, just one day after the company gained its crucial California permit to carry paying riders in driverless cars – making it the first company to manage this in the state. Waymo has a permit to charge for robotaxi rides from the California Public Utilities Commission but it requires a human "safety driver" to sit behind the wheel.

The company launched paid services on June 22 using 30 driverless Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles after the autonomous car unit apparently fought off objections by city officials.

In July, onlookers in San Franscico's Civic Center neighborhood claimed a "bunch" of Cruise's driverless vehicles stopped and blocked an intersection, preventing nearby traffic from moving for several hours. The alleged incident was apparently mentioned by the author of an anonymous letter to the California Public Utilities Commission claiming Cruise was looking to launch its commercial robotaxi service too early, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt told NBC the day after the paid robotaxi launch: "For the first time we had members of the public use their phone, summon a driverless robot taxi (so a car pulls up with no one inside it) and they went for a ride and these were fared rides – so Cruise is officially open for business."

"So last night we had a handful of rides, our first revenue trickling in from our ride-hail operation, we had a number of 5 star reviews. We hear the same thing from people every time: they get in the car, they're a little apprehensive, [but] after 3 or 4 minutes, they're completely locked in, they're having a good time, it feels like pure magic. And after the ride, people reflect on it and they say: 'I felt like that was actually my space – I had the privacy and comfort of my own cabin. I wasn't in someone else's space.'"

He added: "We hear from a lot of women who say they feel a lot safer at night riding home in a car without someone in it that they don't know."

He told Automotive News in March that "the tech barriers to going from one city to three cities to 10 cities are very, very small in proportion to the amount of work it took to get city number 1."

As of September 30, 2021, California's DMV has authorized the deployment of autonomous vehicles from just three companies: Cruise, Nuro Inc, and Google's Waymo. When it comes to testing autonomous vehicle tech, that number goes up to six. By contrast, semi-autonomous Lexus vehicles running Apple self-driving tech – as well as that of 48 other companies, including Tesla – are only licensed for testing with a driver on the state's roads. Tesla says a human must always be in control when its Autopilot self-driving software is engaged.

You can't actually buy a Cruise AV – they've never been offered for sale to third parties and the idea is that ultimately GM runs an autonomous taxi service. ®

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