Thursday, October 26, 2023

Something to Know - 27 October

The frenzy of driverless cars has captured the attention of automobile manufacturers and the general public.  Vehicles zipping around town and freeways are happening, and much concern and questions are rampid.   This piece from the Los Angeles Times highlights real issues and questions the rapid development of autonomous vehicles, and it is being passed on to you for your reading, and also a peek into what my son does for a living.   I am never quite sure what it is that he does at UCLA and I find stuff in the media that informs me every once in a while.

Los Angeles Times

The Cruise robotaxi reckoning highlights tensions over self-driving cars and how we regulate them

A person gets out of a vehicle.
A reporter gets out of a Cruise driverless taxi after a test ride in San Francisco in February. 
(Terry Chea / Associated Press)

Good morning. It's Thursday, Oct. 26. Here's what you need to know to start your day.

  • The Cruise robotaxi reckoning highlights tensions over self-driving cars and how we regulate them

A robotaxi reckoning

Fleets of robotaxies have been rolling around San Francisco and, more recently, Los Angeles, sparking debates about tech, labor and safety. But one autonomous-vehicle company won't be picking up passengers in fully autonomous cars for the time being.

This week, the California Department of Motor Vehicles suspended operating permits for GM-owned Cruise, saying the company's vehicles are "not safe for the public's operation."

The company's permits to test its autonomous technology on public streets and deploy a fleet of robotaxies in the state were both suspended, though Cruise is still allowed to operate vehicles with a human safety driver present.

Robotaxies driving like Tim Robinson have generated traffic headaches in San Francisco — and plenty of headlines about those headaches — over the past year. I've also written about them in this newsletter on more than one occasion.

Cruise and Waymo vehicles have blocked intersections and emergency vehicles, driven into construction zones (and into wet cement at least once) and glitched out when traffic cones are placed on them by anti-AV activists.

The suspension is a high-profile incident that highlights the developing conversations over AVs, traffic safety and how to regulate the emerging tech.

Cruise's step back

The decision stemmed from a collision in San Francisco earlier this month. According to the DMV, an unknown driver who fled the scene struck a woman walking in a crosswalk, knocking her into the path of a Cruise vehicle. The driverless taxi braked hard, but struck and ran over the woman before coming to a stop. It's what the vehicle did next that contributed to Cruise's suspension.

The Cruise car performed a pullover maneuver at a top speed of 7 mph with the woman still underneath the vehicle. The vehicle dragged her about 20 feet before coming to a stop.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that firefighters used the jaws of life to lift the car off the victim, who was hospitalized with traumatic injuries.

The fact that the vehicle continued with the pedestrian trapped underneath was one reason the DMV cited in its suspension orders. The other: that Cruise representatives omitted footage of that pullover maneuver when they presented video recordings of the incident during a meeting with DMV and California Highway Patrol officials. Cruise only showed the AV's initial collision and DMV officials said they only learned about the second maneuver from another government agency. They requested that footage from Cruise, receiving it 10 days after the initial meeting.

"Cruise's omission hinders the ability of the department to effectively and timely evaluate the safe operation of Cruise's vehicles and puts the safety of the public at risk," DMV staff wrote in their suspension order.

Cruise has denied the DMV's statements that it omitted footage.

"We met with the DMV on 10/3, in which we showed them the complete video multiple times," a company spokesperson told me this week. "They later requested a copy of the complete video, which we provided to them."

The DMV's order bans Cruise from operating its driverless taxis until the company shows the department that it's "taken the appropriate action to correct the deficiencies that caused the suspension." It's unclear what the DMV will deem appropriate action, though Cruise can request a hearing to contest the suspension.

"Safety is fundamental to our mission to save lives — it's at the core of everything we do," Cruise said in a statement. "We are devastated by what happened to the victim, and are committed, as always, to continuously improving our safety — including in response to extremely rare scenarios such as this."

A bumpy rollout and regulation 'playing catch-up'

When Juan Matute, deputy director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, saw the news of Cruise's suspension, his first reaction was "finally." He viewed the DMV's decision as good news for the AV industry at large, because it's a check on Cruise and other companies that try to scale up too quickly.

"Somebody is going to make a ton of money, and then everybody else is going to lose money," he told me. "Everybody wants to be first and big, and so those pressures are leading the companies to deploy technologies that perhaps aren't quite ready yet for a public street."

Matute is also program manager of the new Center for Excellence on New Mobility and Automated Vehicles Project, a which is funded by the Federal Highway Administration to research emerging mobility technologies and how they might be used to improve transportation systems in the U.S.

How those emerging technologies are regulated (or not) is a big piece of Matute's work. He explained that, compared with European countries that invest heavily in "more conservative and more researched" frameworks, regulation in the U.S. "is always going to be playing catch-up." And the reason why is simple: red-blooded American Capitalism.

"We value more innovation and technology development, commercialization and making money," he said. "There are different regulatory regimes and approaches that … react differently based on the perception of risk. And in general, the U.S. is more permissive of trying new things, although people don't always say that about California."

Matute argued that AVs, if scaled up responsibly, could provide key benefits over human-driven cars, including safer streets.

"We have an epidemic of distracted driving in this country," he said. "It's quite evident that a lot of people would rather be on their phones than operating a vehicle. Automated vehicles [provide] the solution to be able to do that safely and still have the mobility that that car provides."

U.S. streets are plenty dangerous without robotaxies. An estimated 42,795 people were killed on U.S. roads last year. On average, more than 4,000 people died in traffic crashes in California over the last five years.

But even among AV skeptics, not everyone agrees on the merits of the technology and how appropriate regulation looks. And as tech historian Peter Norton argued when I asked him about AVs in March, a more advanced car won't solve the multifaceted problems caused by cars.

Tech companies and automakers promise "we can make a car-dependent society a sustainable, affordable, equitable and safe society, and they can't deliver on any of those," Norton said. "In fact, in every category, they could easily make things much worse."


Q. What is the difference between a law-abiding gun owner and a criminal?

A.  The .2 of a second that it takes to pull a trigger.

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