Incident raises more questions about an AV vehicle’s ability to handle unexpected roadway issues
It’s the kind of headline that’s not welcome for companies developing self-driving technologies, but it’s become a reality for General Motors’ subsidiary company Cruise after an incident last month where a self-driving car blocked a fire truck heading for an emergency call.
As first reported by Wiredthe circumstances were somewhat unusual.
In the early hours of an April morning, a San Francisco Fire Department truck was responding to a call while attempting to pass a double parked garbage truck using the opposite lane.
But he couldn’t, because one of Cruise’s autonomous vehicles (AVs), traveling without a safety driver, was blocking his path. The cruise is currently test a driverless taxi service in the city.
If a “normal” car with a human behind the wheel had been in the same situation, one might have expected it to back up to clear a path for the fire truck.
That didn’t happen, however. The cruiser vehicle remained in place and the situation was only resolved – after a short, but potentially fatal 25 second delay – when the garbage truck driver quickly returned to his vehicle and was able to move it.
Despite the abnormal circumstances, the low visibility of the incident was revealed in a filing submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission by city officials.
“This incident slowed SFFD’s response to a fire which caused property damage and injuries,” they wrote. Additionally, it has been claimed that cruisers stop too frequently in traffic lanes, which could have a “negative impact” on firefighter response times.
Cruise, for his part, said the driverless car gave way to the oncoming fire truck and contacted the company’s remote support workers.
But the incident has again raised questions about the ability of AV vehicles to handle so-called “extreme cases” in which something unexpected happens on the road. And it’s unlikely to do much to convince skeptical drivers of its merits – a recent report from the American Automobile Association found that 85% of respondents were afraid or unsure about self-driving technology.
The inability of AV vehicles to react in the same spontaneous manner as humans in “extreme cases” is one reason why some in the automotive industry doubt the veracity ‘Level 5’ autonomy, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers – where a car can drive itself “anywhere in all conditions” – will never be fully achieved.
The latest cruise incident follows a bizarre episode in April in San Francisco when police were captured reporting a driverless car so as not to have the headlights on. It also emerged that the local cops were encouraged consider using Cruise AVs – and also those from Alphabet Waymo – for investigation tracks because they “recorded their surroundings continuously”.
However, adverse headlines seem to have no impact on the race for self-driving services, particularly in San Francisco where Cruise’s app to provide a marketed driverless robotaxi service seems ready to be approved and Waymo donated driverless journeys for employees.
Despite the obvious progress, as shown by the fire truck incident, there are still many hurdles to overcome before we can tackle all the scenarios that the chaos of city driving might throw up.