Waymo and Cruise ditched safety drivers. Now, the cars are breaking road rules and causing traffic mayhem

January 31, 2023, 6:32 PM UTC
A Waymo autonomous car
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On their way home from a concert at the San Francisco Jazz Center about a week ago, Benjamin Shaykin and his son walked up to a curious scene.

A car was stopped in the middle of an intersection for no apparent reason, with a succession of annoyed drivers honking and navigating around it. On the sidewalk, bemused onlookers noted that there was nobody inside the automobile causing the ruckus.

The stalled car was an autonomous Cruise vehicle, designed to drive city streets using artificial intelligence and an array of special sensors that its creators say will one day make cars safer than those with a human behind the steering wheel.

On this evening, however, the technology was clearly not working as intended.

To Shaykin, the lack of any human inside the car was “disconcerting” for those sharing the street with the autonomous vehicle. “You can’t make eye contact with it, you can’t know that they see you,” he said. “So you’re just hoping for the best.” 

It’s not just in San Francisco that AVs are distressing drivers and pedestrians. In Austin, biker Robert Foster was behind a Cruise vehicle when he saw it drift into the bike lane. Curious to see if it was a one-off mistake, he stayed at the intersection and waited to see if any of the other Cruise cars operating in the neighborhood would behave similarly. Minutes later, he said he saw one Cruise car, and then another, make a left turn into the same bike lane. 

Despite incidents like stalled traffic and swerves into the wrong lane, robocar makers like Cruise, which is owned by GM, and Waymo, a subsidiary of internet giant Alphabet, want to expand further. While “safety drivers” once sat behind the steering wheel, ready to take control in tricky situations, the companies believe their cars are now ready to offer widespread commercial ride-hailing services without any human back up drivers on board.

City leaders, meanwhile, are facing mounting pressure to put the brakes on these experiments, and to bar the autonomous vehicles from operating unfettered in high-traffic areas during busy times of day.

Last week, San Francisco transportation officials sent protest letters to California’s Public Utilities Commission, urging state regulators to slow down a planned expansion of autonomous vehicles in the city.

The officials said that in the latter half of 2022, 92 separate incidents involving Cruise vehicles were reported to the city. Most of the incidents happened in the city’s “high injury network,” the areas that see the most traffic accidents, or on streets where buses, light rail or streetcars operate. More rarely, the incidents have happened during an emergency response like when a Cruise vehicle ran over a fire hose that was being used at an active fire scene in June. It almost happened again about a week ago, until firefighters on the scene shattered the front window of the vehicle to prevent it from moving forward.

“In the months since the Commission approved the first small commercial AV deployment in San Francisco, we have observed significant new operational challenges in interactions between AVs and other street users where AVs have interfered with traffic and transit operations,” the letter said. 

While the city officials said they were excited about the potential that autonomous vehicles provide as a new transportation option, they called for “further restraint and demonstrated improved performance” before expanding the commercial rollout of paid driverless car services across San Francisco.

In June, Cruise became the first company to offer commercial driverless rides in San Francisco, with regulators letting Cruise cars ferry passengers from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Waymo is trying to follow in its steps, requesting to operate a fleet of unlimited size on more than 95 percent of the city’s road miles, including the dense downtown core. 

The AV companies described the protest letters as a standard part of the regulatory process. Waymo plans to respond to the letters in a submission to the public utilities commission this week, adding that the company has “long appreciated a healthy dialogue with city officials and government agencies in California.” 

Cruise, meanwhile, has met with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority to discuss local traffic incidents involving their vehicles, a spokesperson told Fortune.

“We understand the company has made some efforts to address the unplanned stops but we continue to observe and be notified through news reports and social media about blocked lanes,” the spokesperson said.

Why do autonomous cars make so many sudden stops?

Cruise says that its cars sometimes “enter a fail state” and pause for extended periods due to an underlying safety design. Erring on the side of caution when unsure of the safest path is integral to the car’s safety design and to Cruise’s efforts to prevent collisions, a company spokesperson says.

Waymo spokesperson Chris Bonelli said its vehicles also come to a stop for safety reasons, like earlier last week when a Waymo vehicle stopped in an intersection just before 9 a.m., backing up traffic until team members moved the vehicle. 

Bonelli said these events are infrequent considering the amount of miles Waymo vehicles have driven autonomously on public roads, but are still evaluated by the team to improve service. 

He added that the company relies on a combination of safety methodologies that are released publicly to build safety into the AVs. “Before taking any incremental step to expand the use of our automated driving system we perform a rigorous review of our safety readiness.” 

San Francisco wants greater transparency, however, and officials criticized Waymo and Cruise for trying to keep basic operational data about AV driving confidential.

Meanwhile, officials in Austin have said that AV regulation isn’t in their power. That’s due to bills passed by the state legislature in recent years that placed regulation and oversight of AVs in the hands of the state. 

Still, the city’s Bicycle Advisory Council will hear from Cruise in a meeting next month. 

Cruise says that improving road safety for pedestrians and cyclists is “extremely important” to them and that the car would not have entered the bike lane if a cyclist had been occupying it. 

“Our technology is always improving and we’re reviewing our lane-mapping in that area,” a Cruise spokesperson told Fortune via email.  

No safety drivers, but lots of pedestrians

Foster, the Austin cyclist who witnessed the Cruise cars in the bike lane, is wary of the lack of a safety driver in the AVs, particularly on the road on which the incident happened. Informally known as The Drag, the road is often bustling with college students at the nearby University of Texas at Austin. 

“If you do your testing at 11 p.m., on a Thursday night, there’s gonna be 10,000 students out walking around,” Foster said. “That’s probably the busiest time in that neighborhood with the party night.” Cruise testing takes place from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

To Foster, the AVs also feel like a threat to the bike safety improvements that Austin has been slowly making. 

“We’re building much more protected infrastructure, but there’s still a lot of places where we have really bad infrastructure,” Foster said. “The combination of that and driving cars that probably aren’t ready to be on the road unsupervised just seems like a big step backwards for the city.” 

Some of the safety risks as it expands into new markets are unknown, Cruise acknowledges. In a recent safety report, it says these places “represent a new source of Cruise AV performance data.” 

But for some residents in these markets, like San Francisco’s Shaykin, being in a place that’s used for collecting data can feel unsettling.

“It feels like we’re in this city where we’re like guinea pigs, you know?” he said. 

Learn how to navigate and strengthen trust in your business with The Trust Factor, a weekly newsletter examining what leaders need to succeed. Sign up here.

Read More

Artificial IntelligenceCryptocurrencyMetaverseCybersecurityTech Forward