This week Cruise, which counts General Motors as its largest shareholder, became the first robotaxi operator to recall its vehicles, following an accident in June involving “Major” minor damage and injury to passengers.
The accident happened after the robotaxi Cruise making a left turn stopped at the intersection, thinking an oncoming vehicle would turn in front of it. But the oncoming vehicle instead rolled straight, hitting the cruiser. The San Francisco Police Department and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have launched investigations.
Cruise said the oncoming vehicle drove into the right-turn lane and traveled at “about 40 mph” in a 25 mph lane before exiting the lane and moving forward. Cruise acknowledged in his recall filing that his robotaxi was not “responsive enough”. Cruise spokeswoman Hannah Lindow declined to say what the Cruise vehicle could have done differently and declined to release video of the crash.
Nonetheless, Cruise said in a statement that it made the recall “in the interest of transparency to the public.”
Cruise said in a document detailing the recall that he had already released a software update that he says improves the robotaxis’ ability to predict what other vehicles will do, including in crash-like conditions.
Tesla, arguably a long-term Cruise competitor, has been criticized in the past for performing software updates to its vehicles without always issuing a recall. NHTSA has been more proactive on recent recalls and Tesla has issued four recalls in a 12-day period earlier this year.
Software updates like what Cruise did, often referred to as “over-the-air updates”, are usually not heavy financially to businesses in the same way as traditional boosters, as there are no costs for physical parts and labor to install them.
“Automated driving developers are constantly revising their software, including to address potential safety issues,” Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who studies self-driving vehicles, told CNN Business. “It is to the company’s credit that they have treated this particular security update as a recall under federal law.”
Cruise continued to operate his robotaxi service in San Francisco after the crash. But at some point after the accident, which Cruise did not disclose, he disabled his vehicles ability to make unprotected left turns and reduced the area where his robotaxis operated. Cruise has been gradually reintroducing unprotected left turns since the July 6 software update. An unprotected left turn is a turn where there is no left turn signal that indicates when it is possible for a vehicle to leave.
Unprotected left turns are generally considered one of the most difficult tasks in a fully autonomous vehicle. Waymo’s robotaxis in Arizona, for example, sometimes avoid these turns to help minimize risk.
Cruise became the second company to offer a fully self-driving ride service when it launched in San Francisco in February, but only during late evening hours. The crash that led to the recall happened at 11 p.m., according to Cruise’s report filed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Cruise’s Robotaxis delighted some passengers but also had shortcomings, including technical issues and glitches like a fire truck responding to a blaze stalling at multiple alarms in April, according to the San Francisco Fire Department. The pictures have also surfaced of a group of cruisers blocking lanes on a street in San Francisco.
Developing and operating robotaxis is extremely difficult and expensive. Cruise added shareholders besides GM, including Honda, Microsoft and Walmart. Cruise lost $500 million in the second quarter of this year, according to GM financial documents.
GM CEO Mary Barra said last month that the robotaxis market would likely be multi-billion dollar once robotaxis rides were available for $1 per mile, cheaper than Uber and Lyft, which often cost several dollars per mile and sometimes more.
“It’s going to play a big role in how we get from point A to point B because it’s safer,” Barra told Fox Business.
NHTSA doesn’t have performance standards for fully autonomous vehicles like Cruise’s, but said it will pursue recalls if necessary.