US launches official probe into Cruise after pair of pedestrian accidents

Hey, we're still safer than human drivers, says GM outfit

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has launched an investigation of General Motors' Cruise driverless robo-taxis after a pair of recent pedestrian injuries. 

In its preliminary investigation notice [PDF], the NHTSA said that the two accidents - and a separate pair of incidents that were only discovered after videos of the collisions were uploaded to the internet - suggest Cruise's automated driving system (ADS) "may not be exercising appropriate caution around pedestrians in the roadway," which won't surprise many people.

"These reports involve ADS equipped vehicles encroaching on pedestrians present in or entering roadways, including pedestrian crosswalks, in the proximity of the intended travel path of the vehicles," the NHTSA said. "This could increase the risk of a collision with a pedestrian, which may result in severe injury or death."

Cruise operates a fleet of driverless taxis in San Francisco, Austin, Phoenix and Houston. An estimated 594 vehicles equipped with Cruise ADS software are included in the NHTSA's investigation. 

One of the two reported accidents that triggered the investigation occurred in early October. The NHTSA's report [PDF] corresponds with the incidents of an October 2 incident that was previously reported by The Register

According to the NHTSA report that Cruise told us was filed after the accident, a San Francisco woman was run over by a robo-taxi after the human driver of a Nissan Sentra struck the pedestrian and launched them in front of the Cruise taxi. Not mentioned in the NHTSA report is the fact that the victim was in critical condition, and the Cruise vehicle stopped on top of her, trapping her leg under a rear tire. 

The other incident occurred in August in which a pedestrian stepped off a curb and into an intersection in front of a Cruise vehicle as the traffic light turned green. The Cruise AV struck the pedestrian at low speed, resulting in "moderate" injuries, per the NHTSA report.

The NHTSA investigation will serve "to determine the scope and severity of the potential problem, including causal factors that may relate to ADS driving policies and performance around pedestrians, and to fully assess the potential safety risks," the NHTSA said. 

Despite the accusin,' Cruisin' supposedly means less bruisin'

Information on the two videoed incidents wasn't provided by the NHTSA, and Cruise didn't add any details in its response to our questions. Spokesperson Hannah Lindow did tell us that the cars have a safety record far exceeding that of human drivers, referring us to a Cruise-authored report that found 65 percent fewer collisions involving Cruise AVs than with human-piloted ride-hailing services. 

In addition to reduced collisions overall, Cruise said that its cars were at fault in 94 percent fewer collisions than human drivers, and that it was 74 percent less likely to be involved in a collision with meaningful risk of injury.

"Cruise's safety record over five million miles continues to outperform comparable human drivers at a time when pedestrian injuries and deaths are at an all-time high," Lindow said. "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."

Regardless of its actual safety record, Cruise's driverless vehicles have consistently made headlines over operational snafus and the frustration they've brought to San Francisco streets. 

Software bugs identified last year caused Cruise AVs to brake in the middle of unprotected (opposing traffic has the right of way) left turns, causing an accident just one day after GM managed to secure its driverless operation permit for San Francisco. A software update was also required after a Cruise vehicle crashed into a bus when it failed to notice the vehicle had decelerated. 

Cruise vehicles have jammed city streets after ceasing to function on more than one occasion, and repeat fender benders led the California Department of Motor Vehicles to force the company to reduce its active fleet size by half in August. ®

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