Self-driving cars continue to come under scrutiny, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began a preliminary investigation last week into the automated vehicles from Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, operating as robotaxis in San Francisco. NHTSA last year ordered manufacturers and operators to report crashes involving vehicles equipped with automated driving systems; it is also investigating 830,000 Tesla cars equipped with the Autopilot driver assistance system.
According to a document posted on NHTSA’s website, the agency received three reports of Cruise vehicles’ automated driving system “initiating a hard braking maneuver in response to another road user that was quickly approaching from the rear.” Each resulted in a rear-end collision.
The safety agency also said there were an unspecified number of incidents where Cruise vehicles came to a standstill on the road. These events, NHTSA said, could lead to dangerous situations for passengers such as their having to exit the vehicle in traffic or leave a vehicle stranded in an intersection. Immobilized vehicles could also cause other road users to make abrupt or unsafe maneuvers or could block emergency response vehicles. In at least one incident in San Francisco, a driverless Cruise vehicle reportedly blocked a fire truck that was responding to a fire.
Both situations “result in the Cruise vehicles becoming unexpected roadway obstacles,” NHTSA said in its preliminary evaluation.
In an emailed statement, Cruise Senior Policy Communications Manager Hannah Lindow said that “Cruise’s safety record is publicly reported and includes having driven nearly 700,000 fully autonomous miles in an extremely complex urban environment with zero life-threatening injuries or fatalities.”
While federal regulations limit the number of fully automated vehicles an operator can deploy, there are no federal safety regulations specific to autonomous vehicle operational standards.
“There’s a lack of oversight of what's happening on the roads, and it’s to the detriment of both people in the vehicle and everyone that they're sharing the roads with,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Chase said she’s glad NHTSA opened the investigation, adding that “they need to do a thorough and comprehensive investigation and be as transparent as possible.”
Last year, NHTSA ordered manufacturers and operators to report crashes involving vehicles equipped with automated driving systems. From July 2021 to May 15, 2022, these vehicles were involved in 130 crashes, one of which resulted in serious injuries.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 20 states now allow testing or deployment of autonomous vehicles without a human operator. Of the 130 collisions reported to NHTSA, 90 occurred in California, with the rest happening in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming. According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, 535 autonomous vehicle collision reports have been received as of Dec. 16, dating back to 2014.
Even as NHTSA looks into the safety of these vehicles, Cruise has added Phoenix and Austin, Texas, to its service areas. The company also applied to the California Department of Motor Vehicles for permission to operate its purpose-built autonomous vehicle, the Origin, in San Francisco. This vehicle has no steering wheel or pedals.
While Cruise and Waymo, the former brainchild of Google, are expanding to additional cities, AV developer Argo AI shut down in October, when Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen discontinued further investments in the company. At the time, Ford CEO Jim Farley said that “profitable, fully autonomous vehicles at scale are a long way off.”
An Urban Institute report issued in September stated that “it is still uncertain whether AVs are, or will ever be, safer than human-driven cars.”
With nearly 43,000 people killed in traffic incidents in 2021, however, many look to autonomous vehicles to reduce the toll of dead and injured on the nation’s roads. Advances in semiconductors that can more quickly process and act on the multiple sensor inputs that automated driving systems use, along with the potential for wireless vehicle communication with other vehicles and with infrastructure such as traffic lights, could help AVs reach their promised potential for safety.
“There’s always a balance between healthy regulatory scrutiny and the innovation we desperately need to save lives, which is why we’ll continue to fully cooperate with NHTSA or any regulator in achieving that shared goal,” Cruise’s Lindow said.