The Streets of San Francisco blocked

Self driving car technology may be able to solve many challenging problems, but dealing with basic issues is still cause for concern. A day after San Francisco authorized self driving cars to operate for profit 24 hours/day, ten Cruise driverless taxis blocked the narrow Grant Avenue in North Beach, stopping traffic and closing roads. The issue turned out to be cell service failures that caused the cars to no longer communicate with their homebase. As a result, the cars just stopped in place, much like a large boulders sitting in the middle of the road.

According to Yahoo, “All traffic came to a standstill on Vallejo Street and around two corners on Grant. Human-driven cars sat stuck behind and in between the robotaxis, which might as well have been boulders: no one knew how to move them.”

They not only just tie up traffic. They block fire trucks, police cars and ambulences. The Fire Department has logged more than 55 cases of robotaxis interfering with first responders. Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson has repeatedly said the robotaxis operated by Cruise and Waymo are getting in firefighters’ way and their technology is “not ready for prime time.” As if on cue, a few days after the approval, a driverless Cruise taxi collided with a fire engine on the way to a fire.

This is just another example of the high tech industry failing to critically examine the unintended consequences of new technology, while convincing non-technical politicians to grant approvals. While I’m sure the engineers focused on the really hard issues, you wonder if they ever considered simple failure modes such as this. But when a car fails and has no driver, what’s the plan? Was that even considered before approving their use?

A noted AI scientist, Gary Marcus, explains it best:

“Driverless cars have been given every advantage in life: over $100 billion in funding, almost as much adulatory press as (the far more deserving) Taylor Swift, and, now, license to roam, despite all the known issues and the well-established reality that the unknown unknowns seemingly never end. 

I honestly don’t know what the California Public Utilities Commission was thinking; none of the independent scientists I know follow these things would have endorsed the idea.

Scaling up to driving everywhere all the time without a well-vetted serious, well-vetted solution to the edge case problem was insane; it was quite literally an accident (or series of accidents) waiting to happen.

Self-driving cars operating on the randomness and complexity of city streets is still years not ready to be unleashed.

But the approval just granted is being modified according to this news from TECHCRUNCH.

Cruise, the self-driving car subsidiary of GM, has been asked to reduce its robotaxi fleet by 50% in San Francisco following a crash Thursday night with a fire truck.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles, the agency that regulates the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles in the state, requested the reduction in operations. The state agency said it is investigating “recent concerning incidents” involving Cruise vehicles in San Francisco. It called for Cruise to reduce its fleet by 50% and have no more than 50 driverless vehicles in operation during the day and 150 driverless vehicles in operation at night until the investigation is complete.

Safety of the traveling public is the California DMV’s top priority,” the DMV said in a statement issued Friday evening, adding that it has the right, following the investigation to suspend or revoke testing and/or deployment permits if it determines there’s an unreasonable risk to public safety. “The primary focus of the DMV’s regulations is the safe operation of autonomous vehicles and safety of the public who share the road with these vehicles.

by Phil Baker