Photo: GM

General Motors has said it wants to deploy a fleet of self-driving Chevy Bolts for a commercial ride-sharing service at some point in 2019. But ahead of that, GM’s self-driving unit, GM Cruise, is aiming to deploy autonomous cars without a driver at the wheel as part of a pilot program in San Francisco that, emails obtained by Jalopnik suggest, could launch imminently.

As recently as last month, Cruise officials were corresponding with the San Francisco mayor’s office about using some of the city’s first responder vehicles for autonomous car tests and data collection. The training exercise, a Cruise officials wrote in one email, “is critical to both public and vehicle safety” ahead of “driverless deployment.”

“I am happy to discuss the details of the exercise and why it’s critical to our forthcoming public launch and law enforcement interaction plan requirements,” Nadia Marquez, GM Cruise’s senior government relations manager, wrote in a May 2 email, obtained by Jalopnik through a public records request.

It’s unclear how soon Cruise plans to launch the pilot, but multiple emails suggest the goal is to deploy in the near-future.

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On May 4, Marquez reiterated her point with a sense of urgency, asking the mayor’s office “what is needed in order to open up communications that would allow us to work on our DMV required law enforcement interaction plan.” (Under recently enacted regulations, California requires companies testing driverless cars to have a “law enforcement interaction plan.”)

“I want to be deferential to everyone’s time and work, but without compromising needed AV safety ahead of our forthcoming pilot launch,” Marquez wrote. In a separate email, Marquez said the company would like to finalize the training exercise “fairly soon.”

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A spokesperson for the mayor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. Notably, last November, GM President Dan Ammann gave the impression the company wasn’t interested in launching pilot projects for driverless cars.

“[Y]ou can’t change the world and have the impact that we want to have on the world if we don’t do this at scale,” he told investors Nov. 30. “Doing small scale pilots or experimentation is interesting but frankly not that relevant to the kind of impacts that we want to have. So it’s got to be truly driverless, it’s got to be large scale.”

Cruise wouldn’t comment on the prospect of a driverless pilot in San Francisco.

“We continue to work with the City and other key stakeholders as we continue to safely test our self-driving technology,” a Cruise spokesperson said. “We have nothing to announce at this time.”

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‘These Are The Games They Play Right Now’

California recently unveiled a new system that requires companies to obtain a permit to test driverless cars in the state. Only two companies—not including GM Cruise—have applied to date, the California DMV confirmed Tuesday.

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One key aspect Cruise officials described as crucial to a successful launch is training its autonomous cars to properly respond to emergency vehicles.

In an April 19 email, Rachel Bunting, Cruise’s data collections supervisor, told the mayor’s office that it has “several autonomous vehicles on the roads in SF with cameras that gather images of emergency vehicles anytime they happen to cross paths with one.”

“However, the amount of image data we are collecting this ‘natural’ way is not enough to train our systems,” she continued. So, Bunting said, Cruise obtained film permits through a local agency and hired ambulance companies, as well as the San Francisco Fire Department, to “drive around these permitted blocks while our autonomous vehicles gather images.”

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Cruise requested one-to-two officers and a fire truck, a fire engine, and an ambulance to drive around the permitted area with lights flashing, Bunting said. But the fire department had apparently determined it wouldn’t be a prudent use of resources, which set off a series of discussions between Cruise, the mayor’s office and the fire department that spanned several weeks.

“While it has been a pleasure to support you and your projects and/or events, this practice is not proving to be in our best interest,” Mindy Talmadge, administrative officer of the fire department, told Cruise in an April 18 email.

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By early May, Cruise had yet to make headway on the request. In a May 2 email, Andres Power, an advisor to the mayor, told Cruise to check with Commander Teresa Ewins, of the San Francisco police department, for a status update on the training exercise.

Days later, Ewins responded to Power: “These are the games they play right now. I think the universal message to them right now is what is it that you are requesting. They keep changing it.”

“I’d ask that you reach out to the fire dept to make sure they are not pulling the same,” Ewins added.

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Ewins, inadvertently, had copied Cruise’s Marquez on the email.

“As someone who highly regards SFPD, I would never want to provide the impression that we are playing games or mixing messages in any way shape or form before your Department, nor Fire,” Marquez wrote. “We have always been very forthright about the need to collaborate with local law enforcement to accomplish rigorous safety and performance standards ahead of removing the driver.”

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“If it is the Department’s desire to fully deny collaboration on the Law Enforcement Interaction Plan and any safety relating exercises, please let us know, so that we can limit work to the DMV/[California Highway Patrol] on finalizing our submission,” Marquez added. “This is far from ideal, but I do want to support your wishes.

Ewins responded that her communication “was intended just for Ms. Powers [sic].”

“I am sorry if it does not sit well with you,” Ewins said. “With that said, you must understand that I am being told one thing that you want to capture, and then I am told you want to be on the street in specific areas which means you will be mapping the area. If it is purely about sirens and lights that can be accomplished at our training facility.”

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Launching its first driverless car pilot in San Francisco makes sense for Cruise. The company has been testing self-driving car in the city with safety operators at the wheel over the last few years, and last fall it launched an autonomous ride-hailing service for employees called Cruise Anywhere. The testing in San Francisco hasn’t been without hiccups, however.

The California DMV has reported 42 crashes involving autonomous cars in the city since the beginning of 2017. 33 included Cruise vehicles, but none found the company at fault. A motorcyclist rebuffed the narrative of one accident, after he sued General Motors for negligence over a December 2017 crash in which he alleged one of the automaker’s autonomous Chevy Bolts had knocked him off his bike. Last Wednesday, both sides agreed to settle the case, Jalopnik first reported.

GM moved into 2018 with the announcement that it intended to deploy autonomous Bolts with no driver or steering wheel by 2019, pending regulatory approval. It planned to deploy self-driving cars for testing in Manhattan by “early 2018,” but the company has yet to secure a permit to begin driving in New York, Jalopnik recently reported.

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If Cruise deploys a driverless car pilot this year, it would join its main competitor, Google’s self-driving car unit Waymo, which plans to launch a driverless taxi service later this year. GM Cruise announced a deal last week with tech investment firm SoftBank, which said it would invest $2.25 billion in Cruise.

It’s unclear if the training exercise Cruise sought to organize in San Francisco has yet to be completed. A spokesperson for the police department told Jalopnik: At this time SFPD has not participated in exercises involving AV’s. The Mayors office is working with the City Attorney to work out a system for requests. We want to be fair to all companies and provide the same information.

On May 23, Katie Angotti, director of state and federal legislative affairs for the mayor’s office, asked Cruise if it was “interested in providing our first responders with a safety briefing to discuss any toxic or dangerous materials they should be aware” of.

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“There has been movement in the request of how to handle the requests to use the city’s first responders/vehicles for data collection and I am now waiting to hear back from leadership as to the specific arrangement,” Angotti said. “I will share it with you as soon as I hear back.”