First Details on Paralyzed Robotaxi Fleet in San Francisco

More details are emerging following a Cruise system failure that saw an intersection in San Francisco blocked by just over a dozen robot cabs for at least two hours before Cruise employees were then able to drive them away manually or remotely.

First off, Cruise gave the following rather vague information in a press release:

We had an issue earlier this week that caused some of our vehicles to cluster together. While it was resolved and no passengers were impacted, we apologize to anyone who was inconvenienced.

However, in further reports, it is clear that this is not the first time it has happened, nor was such behavior by the vehicles unpredictable. A Twitter user shared videos and pictures of an incident about a week earlier, showing three to four Cruise vehicles in such a paralyzed situation:

As can be seen, the vehicles are quite scattered on the road, blocking one direction of travel. Pictures from inside the vehicles show on the display the sentences:

Pulling over to a safe stop

and

Something happened on your trip. A support specialist will. explain what to do next.

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A telephone number is also displayed for emergency responders to call to rectify the situation. The number then also states that the self-driving mode has been switched off.

According to this Twitter user, the vehicles stood there like that for at least 15 minutes, and occasionally the vehicles would pull up briefly, as if trying to “get out of the situation.”

An anonymous reddit user who says he works at Cruise shared his previously articulated concerns. He said he had already voiced them to the California Public Utility Commission CPUC when the commercial robotaxi license was issued in May, which happened when the vehicle was taken over:

To summarize the message, it specifies the nature of “Vehicle Retrieval Events” (VRE) such as the ones that occurred on June 28, June 20, and multiple times before then that may result in dozens of vehicles blocking public roads until they are physically retrieved, and why I believe these events will occur frequently for the foreseeable future including when hours of operation of the driverless fleet are expanded to include morning and evening rush hour times. Aside from the obvious problems with large numbers of vehicles blocking traffic, one of the more concerning possibilities is these vehicles blocking emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire trucks.

He then gives some reasons how this situation can occur:

It frequently takes a number of hours to even identify why these fleet-wide Vehicle Retrieval Events have happened. When one vehicle enters this state, it may be because of a hardware or software problem. When many vehicles enter the VRE state it is because one of the many cloud services the vehicles interact with is down or overloaded. There have also been cases where both primary and backup services have been down so there has been no way to communicate with or get any information from the vehicles, which directly violates the terms of the DMV permit allowing Cruise to operate on public California roads and I highly doubt Cruise has reported this to the DMV. It is expected that eventually these cloud services will be more reliable but they are highly complex emergent systems that interact with one another and there is no simple quick fix. With complex technology of this type, you typically need to either move agonizingly slowly (think like aerospace industry) or “move fast and break things”.

He then adds more comments about the company culture at Cruise, which we’ve written about here before:

I subjectively find Cruise to be a highly chaotic environment where safety related discussion is routinely discouraged because it contradicts the leadership’s narrative, “is a distraction”, and “lowers morale”, the second two being direct quotes I have heard spoken by management and leadership at the company.

I’m glad that this issue is getting more attention, and for the sake of the safety of San Francisco residents, I hope that Cruise and regulators such as the CPUC both take the appropriate steps to ensure public safety.

It can be assumed that such situations will continue to occur, which are not easy to solve due to their complexity. This can, as the poster said, lead to problems with emergency vehicles and traffic in general when streets are blocked. If such robot taxi fleets include not just a few dozen but thousands of vehicles, they can quickly paralyze an entire city and region.

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