February 6, 2023

The main federal auto safety agency revealed Friday that it has opened a preliminary investigation into a driverless taxi being tested by a General Motors unit in San Francisco.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a document posted on its website that it had received reports that robo-taxis operated by General Motors’ Cruise unit had become immobile on roads, causing obstacles for other vehicles. The agency also said GM reported three incidents in which a Cruise vehicle slowed suddenly and was hit from behind.

The agency said its Office of Flaws Investigations will try to determine the scope and severity of both types of incidents.

Regulators are increasingly scrutinizing autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles, and automakers’ claims about them. The auto safety agency’s most high-profile investigation in this area involves Tesla’s Autopilot technology. Regulators are investigating at least 14 crashes involving Tesla vehicles on Autopilot that killed 19 people.

There were no reports of deaths or serious injuries in the Cruise vehicles, but the auto safety agency said the vehicles could put people at risk. The agency said in its filing that when Cruise taxis stop unexpectedly, they “may trap vehicle occupants in unsafe places, such as carriageways or intersections, and act as unintended obstacles to other road users.” “These immobilization measures may increase the risk to disembarking occupants. Additionally, immobilization may cause other road users to make sudden or unsafe maneuvers to avoid a collision with an immobilized Cruise vehicle.”

The investigation, which involved 242 vehicles, is the first step before the agency forces GM to recall vehicles.

This year, Cruise began offering robo-taxi services in parts of San Francisco and at nighttime hours when traffic is low. It recently received approval to expand service to the city’s downtown area and operate 24 hours a day. The unit has been preparing to expand its operations to Austin, Texas, and Phoenix.

GM and other auto and technology companies have spent billions of dollars developing self-driving systems that they hope will provide taxis, deliveries and trucks to consumers and other businesses. Waymo, owned by Google’s parent company, has been working on the technology for more than a decade and offers a driverless taxi service in and around Phoenix. The company said Friday that it has begun a driverless taxi service in San Francisco after receiving approval from California regulators.

In a one-day investor presentation last month, GM’s chief financial officer Paul Jacobson said the company believed Cruise could become a $50 billion business by 2030. “Cruise is an integral part of that and will expand to other cities,” he said. “They’re making really good progress.”

But progress has been much slower than initially expected, and some auto companies and investors have grown wary of pouring more money into the technology, which may not generate significant sales or profits for years to come. In October, Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG said they would shut down Argo AI, a self-driving car company in which they invested.

Cade Metz Contribution report.



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