GM’s self-driving car subsidiary Cruise said earlier this year that it wants to add as many as 5,000 more robotaxis to American streets, including in San Francisco, where it currently maintains a fleet of fewer than 100 cars. But the city says the robotaxis are already shaping up to be a self-driving nightmare at times and warns that a much larger fleet could worsen safety and traffic.
San Francisco-based Cruise began offering a ridehail service from 10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. in the city earlier this year for a fee. The model resembles Uber and Lyft, but has relied on driverless Chevrolet Bolts that maneuver with AI-powered software and sensors. Cruise requested approval for a new vehicle that could vastly expand the size of its San Francisco-based fleet – as much as 50 times the size – as it strives to reach $1 billion in revenue before 2025.
But San Francisco has concerns ranging from general traffic to dangerous situations that have already been encountered, the city said in a 36-page response, filed last week as part of a request for public comment issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (or NHTSA) in response to GM’s request to be exempted from some federal safety standards for its new self-driving vehicle, known as the Cruise Origin.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) and San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) submitted the comments on behalf of the city and county based on close collaboration with the mayor’s office, police department, fire department, department of emergency management and mayor’s office on disability.
Unlike its existing Chevrolet Bolts, the Origin will not have human controls like a steering wheel and pedals. Cruise needs an exemption to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s vehicle safety standards, which were designed for an era of human drivers.
The city said it was “disappointed” by the petition, which “generally assumes, rather than making a strong and persuasive case, that GM’s autonomous technology will improve the safety of the transportation system.”
The first concern, traffic, involves not just the surge of new cars that GM wants to put on city streets. It’s how those self-driving cars, which have no steering wheel or pedals for a human operator, are likely to drive, too.
Or not drive.
San Francisco says that as GM started deploying its fleet of driverless Chevrolet Bolts on city streets, the 911 calls started racking up. In late May 2022, city officials started noticing an uptick in calls related to Cruise vehicles. City police officers started noticing disabled autonomous vehicles sitting, blocking travel lanes. Emergency callers reported Cruise vehicles driving erratically, in one instance signaling in one direction but heading in another, or parking themselves in front of transit vehicles.
And then the backups started.
“The most common complaint to 9-1-1 [regarding Cruise vehicles] has been about Cruise AVs blocking travel lanes for extended periods causing traffic backups,” the city said. “In some cases, callers reported evasive maneuvers by others such as driving on a sidewalk to get around the blockage.”
But it’s not just because one Cruise vehicle is stopping the middle of the road. It can be many of them, all at once.
Thirteen Cruise robotaxis stopped simultaneously on a major arterial street in June, the city said. Two more “large group incidents” were reported to San Francisco in August. Cruise declined to comment on the claims of “group incidents” involving its vehicles.
A full third of the 28 emergency calls related to Cruise vehicles placed between May 28 and Sept. 5 “involved multiple non-operational Cruise AVs and affected multiple travel lanes.” Though the city said it lacks reliable data on the number of incidents, they can last hours.
San Francisco officials have identified a further 20 such incidents on social media, they said in the report.
A large fleet and expanded hours of operation “could quickly exhaust emergency response resources,” the city warned. The current Bolt robotaxis have repeatedly blocked city streets, including a fire truck responding to a multi-alarm fire, the city claims. Cruise declined to comment on the incident.
When these cars stop in unexpected places, a human can come take the wheel and drive them, restoring traffic flow. However, this will not be the case with the Cruise Origin, which the city says has the potential to undermine public confidence in automated driving technology.
“The Origin is much larger and heavier than the [Chevrolet Bolt] and has a very different shape. While the Origin’s size and shape offers clear benefits, it may also exacerbate hazards,” the city wrote.
Part of the problem is that the Cruise Origin does not have space for a human driver. A human can pull a stopped car over to the side of the road.
Not so when it comes to the Origin, which lacks those basic controls for a person. A tow truck would have to come pick the vehicle up if it becomes disabled, the city understands.
“If our cars encounter a situation where they aren’t able to safely proceed they turn on their hazard lights and we either get them operating again or pick them up as quickly as possible. This could be because of a mechanical issue like a flat tire, a road condition, or a technical problem,” Cruise said in a statement.
When confronted with a situation in which it is unsure of the right move, Cruise vehicles become essentially paralyzed with indecision, the city said.
“Cruise has informed us that when a Cruise AV faces circumstances in which it is uncertain of the best response, it ‘falls back’ to a ‘minimal risk condition,’ from which it can only be moved by on-street field staff,” San Francisco officials wrote.
And that’s if San Francisco can reach someone at Cruise to move the disabled vehicle. In some cases, Cruise employees did not fetch a disabled vehicle in the time expected for retrieval, according to the city.
In one case this August the city claims that a dispatcher called Cruise four times over six minutes and “none of these calls were picked up.” Cruise declined to comment on the incident.
“No human driver would be satisfied owning or operating a vehicle that becomes immobilized at the apparent rates occurring on San Francisco streets,” the city added.
San Francisco also took issue with how Cruise robotaxis pick up and drop off passengers. It said it reviewed about 100 videos and found no examples of the robotaxis pulling fully out of a travel lane to pick up or drop off passenger.
It highlights a Cruise promotional video in which one of its robotaxis stops in a travel lane to drop off CEO Kyle Vogt rather than pull alongside open curb space.
Cruise declined to comment specifically on San Francisco’s criticisms.
“We’ll continue working closely with NHTSA through their review process to ensure the safe and responsible deployment of this technology,” Cruise spokeswoman Hannah Lindow said in a statement. “We’re proud that the overwhelming majority of public comments submitted on the Cruise Origin are positive, underscoring the vehicle’s sustainability and accessibility benefits and support for American jobs.”
The petition comments include positive remarks from some disability advocates like the National Federation of the Blind and some private citizens who said they were disabled. There were also comments from technology advocacy groups, business groups, Cruise and GM as well as a person who identified themselves as a Cruise lobbyist.
San Francisco said that its comments neither support nor oppose the granting of the petition. It described being “excited” about automated driving’s potential to improve safety, and looked forward to when it proves to be safer than humans.
The National Association of City Transportation Officials, which represents 91 city transit agencies, was more critical, suggesting that NHTSA should not grant GM’s exemption. It also opposed Ford receiving a similar NHTSA exemption for robotaxis. Ford declined to comment on the criticisms. NHTSA has not yet reached a decision in this exemption.
NACTO said the petitions do not show that the robotaxis will serve the public interest. It cautioned that without regulations requiring wheelchair accessible vehicles, “equitable services for persons with disabilities is largely unrealized.”
Cruise will not initially offer a wheelchair-accessible Origin, but will eventually, according to Lindow.
Both NACTO and San Francisco urged NHTSA to develop performance standards for robotaxis. Currently there are none.
NHTSA declined to comment on a timeline for such standards, or why it hasn’t developed them.
“NHTSA will carefully examine each petition to ensure safety is prioritized and will consider each petition’s impacts on equity, the environment and whether they expand access for people with disabilities. NHTSA will consider public comments received on the petitions in the decision-making process,” the agency said in a statement.
While San Francisco and NACTO were critical of the robotaxi exemptions, not all city governments were. Phoenix, which has worked with Cruise on a delivery partnership of Walmart goods, was far more enthusiastic in its comment on the exemption request.
Mayor Kate Gallego wrote that “we believe it is essential that this technology, and the jobs and economic benefits associated stay here in the United States, benefiting American workers and communities.”