Last time we checked in on General Motors’ Cruise autonomous-vehicle arm, it was worth a surprising $19 billion, because the dream of a self-driving world is one people are willing to dump loads of cash into, growing skepticism or not. That $19 billion, though, has apparently gotten Cruise a whole lot of on-road glitches and safety concerns so far.
I guess it’s a good thing Cruise decided to keep its steering wheels for the moment out of exasperation with federal regulators taking too long to grant the exemptions to remove them, huh?
A new, lengthy report from The Information highlights the documented and previously undisclosed problems with Cruise’s technology, and there are plenty. Autonomous-driving technology is, of course, a work in progress, and one that will take a lot longer to bring to market standards than automakers and tech companies would like everyone to believe.
But from safety concerns to rides in Cruise prototypes testing in San Francisco apparently taking 80 percent longer than they would in a regular car, to the self-driving system glitching out and forcing backup human drivers to take control, the report makes Cruise all sound like a huge mess—much more so than a technological work in progress should be.
The report starts with an anecdote about Honda CEO Takahiro Hachigo taking a ride in one of the cars, and how it didn’t go too well:
About 20 minutes in, the car’s software suddenly turned itself off even as the car kept moving. A man sitting behind the wheel—the backup driver—had to take control. Attempts to restart the system failed, and a second Cruise vehicle had to pick up Mr. Hachigo to finish the demonstration.
The previously unreported glitch was embarrassing for GM, Cruise’s majority owner, as Honda is an investor in the company, which was valued at $19 billion in its latest fundraising. More significantly, though, the software outage and previously undisclosed internal data highlight the technological challenges faced by Cruise that have forced it to repeatedly delay the planned launch of a fully automated robotaxi service to the public, from the original time frame of 2018 to the very end of 2019, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
The Information reports that Cruise didn’t comment, but that issues with the software include the above along with “near collisions with other vehicles, strange steering or unexpected braking,” and driving abilities that pale in comparison to those of human drivers as far as crash frequency is concerned.
Here are just a few examples from the story, emphasis ours:
Near collisions, where a backup driver has to take the wheel or hit the brakes to avoid a crash, are one of the biggest issues with Cruise cars. Several months ago Cruise vehicles were having such close calls—dubbed internally a “safety critical event”—once every 450 miles or so. For Cruise’s main fleet of several dozen cars in San Francisco, that translates to an incident at least several times a day. [...]
Cruise has experienced a variety of problems involving the humans who oversee the vehicles. Twice during a 24-hour period in April, a Cruise backup driver caused a collision. In the first case, a driver appeared to get distracted or fall asleep and crashed the vehicle into a couple of parked cars in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill district, said a person briefed about the matter. The human was driving the vehicle in “manual mode” because it had just suffered a mission failure after it came to a stop in front of a construction cone on a residential street and the company’s remote assistance team was unable to get the car around it.
In the second incident, a Cruise driver took a right turn in the Marina district and came to a stop in the middle of a bike lane. An oncoming female cyclist in her 20s barreled into the front of the Cruise car, hitting her face against the car and wrecking her bike, this person said. She did not appear to suffer serious injury and was able to walk away, this person said.
The Information has a lot more on the problems here. But at any rate, the only place the Cruise technology can go from here is up. Right?