Pack of GM Cruise robo-taxis freeze, snarl up Friday night traffic amid festival crowds

Just a day after getting green light to expand autonomous ops

A day after General Motors was given the green light to accelerate the roll out of its self-driving Cruise taxis in a US state, a congregation of the robo-rides broke down – holding up traffic on a busy night – after reportedly losing wireless connectivity.

Rewind to Thursday, and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted to expand the hours of operation for GM Cruise and Waymo robotaxis in San Francisco, despite opposition from police, fire fighters, and other city agencies.

Previously Cruise was allowed to operate completely computer-controlled taxi rides with no human safety driver present in certain parts of San Francisco from 10pm to 6am; and robo-taxi rides anywhere in SF at any time if a driver was present. Now it can run AI taxis without a safety driver present at any time of day.

Waymo, meanwhile, could charge for robo-rides at any time of the day in the city if a safety driver was present. Now Waymo can provide automated rides at any time even if a driver isn't present.

Three out of four participating commissioners supported the resolution, one of whom, John Reynolds, served as managing counsel for GM Cruise from 2019 until 2022. A fifth commissioner did not attend the hearing.

The Register asked the CPUC why Reynolds did not recuse himself from the vote, a potential conflict-of-interest acknowledgement sought by San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin last month.

"​​Commissioner Reynolds is permitted to vote on the items," said CPUC spokesperson Terrie Prosper in an emailed statement. "He has no financial interest in Cruise or any other AV company." AV being autonomous vehicle.

Well timed

The following day, Friday, approximately 10 Cruise robotaxis stopped moving in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, a consequence of crowds at the Outside Lands music festival overloading cell networks, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.

It's said the cars needed the connectivity to route their journeys. The snafu held up traffic on the Grant Avenue corridor of bars, restaurants, and strip joints near Columbus Avenue.

GM Cruise did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The resulting traffic snarl and delays were exactly what prompted police, firefighters, and other city agencies to oppose the CPUC resolution.

Since self-driving cars began limited nighttime commercial operation in San Francisco in June 2022, there have been approximately 600 reported incidents [PDF], which the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) considers to be just a fraction of the actual number of incidents.

SFMTA notes that neither GM Cruise nor Waymo report the number of unexpected stops or other incidents that interfere with the duties of first responders. The San Francisco Fire Department has about 50 written reports of interference in 2023, related to robotaxis obstructing fire station ingress/egress or transit to locations, and other forms of intrusive driving behavior.

"The SFMTA and the SFCTA [San Francisco County Transportation Authority] supported a measured, incremental approach to expanding AV passenger services in San Francisco that fully considers potential impacts of this new technology, and establishes broader transparency and incremental approvals based on performance benchmarks before allowing unrestricted driverless AV services in San Francisco," said SFMTA spokesperson Stephen Chun, in a statement emailed to The Register.

"Unfortunately, the California Public Utilities Commission has prematurely allowed unrestricted driverless AV commercial passenger services on San Francisco streets."

Chun voiced appreciation for concerns expressed by Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma, the lone dissenting vote, about the impact driverless AVs have had on first responders, and statements from several commissions urging Cruise and Waymo to work with the city to improve the situation.

Chun said SFMTA and SFCTA will continue work with state regulators, AV firms, and CPUC staff "to reduce the unintended safety hazards created by AVs."

The commission has prematurely allowed unrestricted driverless AV commercial passenger services

As noted by Mission Local, the expansion of robotaxi service in San Francisco has been supported by International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 6 and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 87 because the labor unions believe the companies will offer more electrical and janitorial jobs.

But about 30 other labor groups sent a letter to the CPUC opposing the robottaxi expansion due to safety concerns and worries about automation eliminating jobs.

Waymo co-CEO Tekedra Mawakana in a statement heralded the start of full commercial operations in San Francisco.

"We’re incredibly grateful for this vote of confidence from the CPUC, and to the communities and riders who have supported our service," said Mawakana. "We can't wait for more San Franciscans to experience the mobility, safety, sustainability and accessibility benefits of full autonomy for themselves — all at the touch of a button."

Speaking of cars and wireless connectivity...

Last week Ford issued a note saying the Wi-Fi in its SYNC 3 infotainment system has a buffer-overflow bug in its wireless chipset firmware that could be exploited to achieve remote code execution. That means someone near a vulnerable vehicle could hijack the infotainment part of the vehicle; the automaker said critical functions, such as braking and steering, aren't affected.

A software patch will be issued, and can be installed via USB stick. Drivers can switch off their SYNC 3 Wi-Fi in the meantime if they're concerned about their security.

"To date," Ford said in a statement, "we’ve seen no evidence that this vulnerability has been exploited, which would likely require significant expertise and would also include being physically near an individual vehicle that has its ignition and Wi-Fi setting on. Our investigation also found that if this vulnerability was exploited, however unlikely, it would not affect the safety of vehicle occupants, since the infotainment system is firewalled from controls like steering, throttling and braking."

Here's hoping autonomous taxis are better secured. ®

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