Incident 151: California Regulator Suspended Pony.ai's Driverless Testing Permit Following a Non-Fatal Collision

Description: A Pony.ai vehicle operating in autonomous mode crashed into a center divider and a traffic sign in San Francisco, prompting a regulator to suspend the driverless testing permit for the startup.
Alleged: Pony.ai developed and deployed an AI system, which harmed San Francisco city government.

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Anonymous. (2021-10-28) Incident Number 151. in McGregor, S. (ed.) Artificial Intelligence Incident Database. Responsible AI Collaborative.

Incident Stats

Incident ID
151
Report Count
10
Incident Date
2021-10-28
Editors
Sean McGregor, Khoa Lam

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Incident Reports

On October 28, 2021, after turning right onto Fremont Blvd from Cushing Pkwy, the Pony.ai Autonomous Vehicle ("Pony.ai AV") performed a left lane change maneuver in autonomous mode. While performing the lane change, the Pony.ai AV came into contact with a center divider on Fremont Blvd. and the traffic sign that was posted on the divider. The Pony.ai AV suffered moderate damage to the front of the vehicle and the undercarriage. There were no injuries and no other vehicles involved. Fremont Police Department were called to report the incident and the damaged street sign. Pony.ai has subsequently worked with local authorities to resolve all issues related to the damaged sign.

Report of Traffic Collision Involving an Autonomous Vehicle

Following an accident on October 28, 2021 while operating a vehicle in autonomous mode, Pony.ai‘s driverless testing permit has been suspended by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). This is the first time the state of California has suspended such a permit.

The accident occurred at 10:50 a.m. on October 28. The autonomous vehicle was being tested on roads in Fremont, Calif., which is where Pony.ai’s U.S. headquarters is located. You can read the full report of the accident on the CA DMV website. Below is a description of the accident:

“On October 28, 2021, after turning right onto Fremont Blvd from Cushing Pkwy, the Pony.ai Autonomous Vehicle (“Pony.ai AV”) performed a left lane change maneuver in autonomous mode. While performing the lane change, the Pony.ai AV came into contact with a center divider on Fremont Blvd. and the traffic sign that was posted on the divider. The Pony.ai AV suffered moderate damage to the front of the vehicle and the undercarriage. There were no injuries and no other vehicles involved. Fremont Police Department were called to report the incident and the damaged street sign. Pony.ai has subsequently worked with local authorities to resolve all issues related to the damaged sign.”

There have been plenty of other reported crashes involving autonomous vehicles. But this incident stands out because the vehicle was operating in autonomous mode and didn’t involve any other vehicle.

The Robot Report reached out to both the CA DMV and Pony.ai on December 13, 2021 for more information about the reinstatement process. Neither organization responded to us, however, Reuters obtained the following statement from the DMV: “On Nov. 19, the DMV notified Pony.ai that the department is suspending its driverless testing permit, effective immediately, following a reported solo collision in Fremont, California, on Oct. 28.”

Six months ago, Pony.ai became the eighth company to receive a driverless testing permit in California. The other companies are Apollo, AutoX, Cruise, Nuro, Waymo, WeRide and Zoox. Cruise, Nuro and Waymo are the only companies with permits allowing them to deploy autonomous vehicles in commercial operations. Cruise and Waymo are developing robotaxis to transport passengers, while Nuro is developing an autonomous delivery vehicle.

Pony.ai has 10 Hyundai Kona electric vehicles registered under its driverless testing permit. According to the CA DMV, the suspension doesn’t impact Pony.ai’s permit for testing with a human safety driver.

Pony.ai IPO falls apart

Pony.ai is a startup that operates in both China and the U.S. Most of its operations, including its autonomous trucks, take place in China. It hoped to go public in the U.S. via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) that would have raised an additional $1.2 billion in funding.

But in August 2021, Pony.ai suspended those plans with VectoIQ Acquisition. According to Reuters, this deal fell through after Pony.ai “failed to gain assurances from Beijing that it would not become a target of a crackdown against Chinese technology companies.”

Pony.ai recently lost at least three key executives following the merger of its autonomous car and truck R&D teams. Zhenhao Pan was the CTO of Pony’s trucking business; Youhan Sun led planning and control for Pony’s trucking business in the U.S.; and Sun Haowen, former head of planning and control for Pony’s autonomous driving in China.

Expanding in China

Pony.ai was granted a license by the city of Shenzhen to start autonomous driving tests on the city’s open roads. The 12-square-mile (20 square kilometer) pilot zone in Beijing covers major subway stations, residential areas, and tech parks. With the addition of Shenzhen, Pony.ai said it now performs autonomous driving tests or autonomous services in seven Chinese cities.

On November 25, 2021, Pony.ai announced it received approval to run paid autonomous robotaxi services in southeastern Beijing. Beijing, China’s capital city, is the first Tier-1 city in China to approve robotaxi commercialization, allowing self-driving companies to charge for their autonomous services.

California suspends Pony.ai's driverless testing after accident

Pony.ai, a Chinese autonomous driving company backed by Toyota, can no longer test fully self driving vehicles in California, for now at least. According to Reuters, the DMV suspended its driverless testing permit on November 19th, a few weeks after a reported collision in Fremont. Based on the report filed with the state's DMV, a Pony.ai vehicle operating autonomously hit a road center divider and a traffic sign on October 28th.

It was a single vehicle incident, and there were no injuries and other vehicles involved. As Reuters said, it's unclear what aspect of the accident prompted the DMV to suspend Pony.ai's permit, but the company said it immediately launched an investigation and is working with the agency to figure out what caused the collision.

While Pony.ai won't be able to test fully autonomous vehicles in California anymore, it can continue its trials with safety drivers behind the wheel. The company has 10 Hyundai Motor Kona electric vehicles registered for testing and only secured its driverless testing permit six months ago for three cities in the state. It's the eighth company to receive that kind of permit in California, following the likes of Waymo, Cruise and Baidu. Under the terms of the permit, Pony.ai was given permission to conduct driverless tests in Fremont, Milpitas and Irvine on open roads and with a speed limit of 45 miles per hour. Further, the vehicles could only operate in clear weather and light precipitation.

Pony.ai recently received approval to run paid autonomous taxi services in Beijing, which it was also hoping to achieve in California by 2022. It remains to be seen whether this suspension will delay those plans considerably.

California suspends Toyota-backed Pony.ai's driverless testing permit

One of the company’s AVs collided with a center divider in October.

Pony.ai, an autonomous vehicle startup based in Silicon Valley and Guangzhou, China, is temporarily unable to test driverless vehicles in California after a vehicle crash led the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend the company’s testing permit.

Pony.ai was one of the few companies approved to test fully autonomous vehicles without safety drivers behind the steering wheel on public roads in California. The DMV has only issued permits to seven other companies, including major operators like Waymo and Cruise.

But the permit was suspended — and Pony’s name removed from the DMV’s list of permit holders — after a reported vehicle collision in Fremont, California on October 28th, the agency said in a statement. Pony has 10 Hyundai Kona vehicles registered under its driverless testing permit. The company is still authorized to test vehicles with a safety driver behind the steering wheel.

The permit was suspended after the company reported a crash to the DMV. (All AV permit holders are required to file reports after a collision.) According to the report, Pony’s vehicle was in autonomous mode, turning right onto Fremont Boulevard from Cushing Parkway when it “came into contact” with a center divider containing a traffic sign.

“The Pony.ai AV suffered moderate damage to the front of the vehicle and the undercarriage,” the report states. “There were no injuries and no other vehicles involved.”

Fremont Police were called to the scene. Pony said that it later reached out to local authorities to “resolve all issues” related to the damaged street sign.

“The safety of the motoring public remains the California DMV’s top priority, and the department’s autonomous vehicle regulations provide a framework to facilitate the safe testing and deployment of this technology on California public roads,” the DMV said in a statement. “When there is an unreasonable risk to public safety, the DMV can immediately suspend or revoke permits.”

This represents a hurdle to Pony’s commercial plans in the state. Shortly after receiving its driverless testing permit in May, Pony.ai founder and CEO James Peng told The Verge that the company was seeking approval to include those vehicles in its robotaxi service in California. “We are actually at the final stage of getting the approval for travelers,” he said.

Pony.ai was valued at $3 billion after a $400 million investment from Toyota last year. The company has been testing autonomous vehicles in Beijing and Guangzhou since late 2018 as well as in Fremont and Irvine, California.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Pony noted that the company’s autonomous vehicles have driven over 750,000 miles in California since 2017. Pony is also conducting its own investigation into the October collision.

“We are proud to have one of the industry’s best safety records,” the spokesperson said. “We look forward to a safe resolution to this incident.”

Pony.ai’s permit to test driverless vehicles in California is suspended after crash

Founded in 2015 by two former Baidu developers, Pony.ai is the first company to test driverless vehicles on public roads in both the United States and China. After getting approval to test autonomous vehicles in California in May 2021, the company has been stripped of its driverless permit following a crash with a center divider in Fremont, California.

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, the autonomous vehicle suffered moderate damage to the front and undercarriage. There were no injuries and no other vehicles involved, but nevertheless, the DMV has removed Toyota-backed Pony.ai from its list of driverless permit holders.

No fewer than 10 examples of the Hyundai Kona were previously registered under the driverless permit. At the present moment, Pony.ai is authorized to test autonomous vehicles with a driver behind the steering wheel. Pony.ai wants to roll out a robotaxi service in California next year, which is why the suspended permit is pretty troublesome for the American startup.

Founded by James Peng and Tiancheng Lou, the Fremont-based outfit is duking it out with the likes of Google Waymo, the Ford- and Volkswagen-backed Argo AI, and GM’s Cruise over the lucrative robotaxi business. Care to guess what all of these companies have in common? In addition to driverless technology, they also share missed targets and downsized plans.

Pony.ai has covered more than 750,000 miles (1,207,008 kilometers) in California since 2017, but nevertheless, fully driverless technology still has a long way to go. Elon Musk famously said that Tesla FSD will have Level 5 autonomy by the end of 2021, yet the Texas-based automaker limits the Full Self-Driving suite to Level 2. Why is that, you’re asking? Because it’s the driver’s responsibility to stay alert in Level 2-equipped vehicles. In other words, the company would get off scot-free in the event of a crash.

According to the Society of Automotive Engineers, there are six levels of automation to speak of. Level 0 is fully manual like your grandpa’s truck, while Level 5 automation does not require human supervision at all. As a matter of fact, Level 5 cars are not required steering wheels or pedals.

California DMV Suspends Pony.ai Driverless Testing Permit After Small Crash

Pony.ai, a Chinese autonomous driving startup with an office in the U.S., has paused its driverless pilot fleet in California six months after it was approved by local regulators to test autonomous vehicles without a human safety driver.

On November 19, the California Department of Motor Vehicles notified Pony.ai that it was suspending its driverless testing permit following a reported collision in Fremont on October 28, the DMV told TechCrunch in a statement.

Pony.ai has 10 Hyundai Kona electric cars registered under its driverless testing permit. This suspension does not impact Pony.ai’s permit for testing with a safety driver, said the DMV.

According to Pony.ai’s collision report, the incident took place on a clear morning when its driverless vehicle was changing lanes using the autonomous mode.

“Recently, one of our vehicles experienced an incident in Fremont, California, involving a collision with a lane divider and street sign. No other vehicles were involved and no injuries occurred,” a Pony.ai spokesperson told TechCrunch.

“We immediately launched an investigation, and are in contact with the California DMV about the incident,” the spokesperson said.

While other autonomous vehicles had reported crashes, most have occurred while the safety driver has been operating the vehicle manually or when another vehicle has struck an AV from behind. This incident stands out because the vehicle was in autonomous mode and didn’t involve any other vehicle.

The incident puts a question mark on Pony.ai’s autonomous driving capabilities. The startup’s AVs have “successfully driven over 750,000 real-world miles in California since 2017,” said its spokesperson.

Founded in 2016 by Baidu veterans, Pony.ai is among a group of AV startups that have R&D teams and testing fleets in both China and California. It has attracted heavyweight investors like Toyota and Sequoia Capital, with over $1 billion in total raise and a valuation of $5.3 billion as of February. Just recently, alongside Baidu, it was approved to operate commercial drivered autonomous cars within a demo zone in Beijing.

The company has also faced obstacles in recent months. It had halted plans to list through a SPAC in New York after failing to reassure Beijing it would not be targeted by the U.S. government, Reuters reported in August. Last month, TechCrunch reported that the company’s autonomous trucking business had lost a few key executives, leaving the newly minted unit in limbo. As competition heats up, the startup has a lot to prove to its investors that it has competitive technologies and a viable commercial future.

California suspends Pony.ai driverless test permit after crash

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec 13 (Reuters) - A California regulator on Monday said it has suspended a driverless testing permit for startup technology firm Pony.ai following an accident - the first time it has issued such a suspension.

On Oct. 28, a Pony.ai vehicle operating in autonomous mode hit a road center divider and a traffic sign in Fremont after turning right, showed the technology firm's accident report filed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

"There were no injuries and no other vehicles involved," the company, backed by Japan's Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), said in the report.

Accidents during driverless testing are not uncommon. It was unclear what aspect of this incident prompted the suspension.

"On Nov. 19, the DMV notified Pony.ai that the department is suspending its driverless testing permit, effective immediately, following a reported solo collision in Fremont, California, on Oct. 28," the DMV said in a statement.

The regulator said Pony.ai has 10 Hyundai Motor Co (005380.KS) Kona electric vehicles registered under its driverless testing permit, and that the suspension does not impact Pony.ai's permit for testing with a safety driver.

The suspension comes only six months after Pony.ai became the eighth company to receive a driverless testing permit in California, joining the likes of Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O) unit Waymo as well as Cruise, backed by General Motors Co (GM.N).

"We immediately launched an investigation, and are in contact with the California DMV about the incident," a Pony.ai spokesman said. Safety is the "foundation" of the company's autonomous vehicle technology, the spokesman said.

The company said the majority of its autonomous driving testing has involved safety drivers, and that will continue to be the case in the near-term.

Pony.ai, which operates in the United States and China, earlier this year suspended plans for a New York stock listing, sources told Reuters.

It halted the plans because it could not gain assurances from Chinese authorities that it would not become a target of increased regulatory action against Chinese technology companies over management and use of user data, the sources said.

The Pony.ai spokesman on Monday declined to comment on listing.

California halts Pony.ai's driverless testing permit after accident

Three different robotaxi-related accidents at the end of this year raise some interesting issues about what they mean going forward. This includes a serious injury accident when an Olli shuttle near Toronto ran off the road, the loss of Pony.AI’s California no-driver test permit over a road departure, and less significantly, an injury accident where a manually driven Waymo hit a pedestrian who allegedly moved unexpectedly out onto the street in San Francisco.

Perfection never has been and never should be the goal for these vehicles, so accidents are going to happen, and the frequency of them will go up with the number of miles being driven. At the same time, crashes that are the result of deploying too soon deserve some extra scrutiny. Overreaction to the crashes can also occur, in a way that delays the deployment of crash-preventing technology.

Olli

The Olli shuttle is a low speed shuttle that was being used to move passengers to and from a commuter train station in Whitby, Ontario. The shuttle runs with a supervisor on board who can stop it, as most self-driving test cars do. Unfortunately, that supervisor sustained critical injuries when the shuttle veered off the road and into a tree for no clear reason. The supervisor’s condition improved — normally critical injuries should not occur in a vehicle only going 20 km/h, but it’s always possible when people are not seat belted or protected by airbags and other passive safety measures.

Update: A similar Olli based shuttle in Toronto has also been suspended after the accident.

This is not the first incident with such shuttles. An Easymile shuttle threw people to the floor when it stopped hard for no reason in Columbus, OH, causing a shutdown of the service. At the time, I considered the question of seatbelts in such vehicles, and it remains an issue.

Seatbelts are rarely used on public transit. Transit has a lower accident rate than personal cars do, but it’s been given a bit of a “pass” on this because in part, seatbelts would seriously degrade transit service. Imagine if a transit bus or train could not allow standing passengers, and if people had to wait before coming to a full stop before unbelting and exiting, and then the bus had to wait for new passengers to get seated and belted before it could start up again. It wouldn’t work. But seatbelts are a good idea if a vehicle has a significant chance of unexplained sudden stops or leaving the road.

It’s thus fairly important that one either not test while this is likely, or that if seatbelts are put in, and especially mandated, that the mandate be explicitly temporary, ended when some goal is met. Once you require seatbelts it’s almost impossible politically to then decide to remove them. While you do demand them, it’s hard to make a competitive bus or shuttle, unless it does trips with very few stops.

Trips with few stops actually are the answer — robotic transportation doesn’t need to be in big vehicles that are limited in number because we only have so many drivers. With robotic transit you use more, smaller vehicles and keep them fairly full, rather than big, infrequent vehicles that often run with low loads. Smaller is actually more energy efficient, and provides better service. That means you also arrange to do far fewer stops, and ideally, you make every trip non-stop, other than the first and last mile, trying to match the virtue of door-to-door private cars. Then you can have seatbelts with no problem.

Pony.AI

Pony.AI cars are more frequently seen in China Visual China Group via Getty Images

Pony.AI is one of the few companies which has, and is using a permit from California to test vehicles with no safety driver on board at all. (The EasyMile and Olli vehicles had a safety driver, but had incidents that a safety driver with only a stop button can’t deal with.) Details are scant, but in October, a Pony.AI test vehicle also departed from the road. There were no injuries (as you would hope with nobody on board.) When they reported this, as required, to the California DMV, the DMV decided to revoke their permit.

That’s a fairly appropriate action. It’s actually not clear what the value is of testing with no safety driver and no passengers, other than saving a bit of money on safety driver salaries. All these teams can easily afford the driver. While everybody has to eventually get to operating without a safety driver to have a real service, and it’s good to do some basic testing of anything new, extensive testing in this form seems odd.

When it comes time for passengers, it is a slightly different story. You learn things about how passengers interact with the vehicle if you take the safety driver out. You eliminate the risk of spreading Covid as well. You are testing the whole system, but at this point, you are not really testing the self-drive system in the way you were before. You don’t put passengers in it alone until your testing has revealed it’s safe to put passengers in it. That doesn’t mean it’s accident- proof, but rather that it has reached some low level of risk that makes it good enough for limited deployment. Both the Pony and Olli vehicles had road departure accidents sooner than would be expected for a vehicle at that level.

Waymo

The Waymo crash almost doesn’t qualify as a self-driving story. According to Waymo, the vehicle was not only in manual mode, but was in an all manual mission. (There have sometimes been questions about statements a car was in manual mode if it had only entered manual mode recently, and automation still might have played a role in the whole sequence.)

Details are also scarce but some details suggest possible fault with the pedestrian — but police will rule on that. The one self-driving issue is to note that the Waymo vehicle could, but does not, make use of its impressive sensing and computation engine to prevent accidents even in manual mode. Many cars have forward collision avoidance systems which will hit the brakes if the driver doesn’t. Waymo’s cars could have the best such system out there if they made the effort to do that, though it’s not a trivial effort and includes liability risks for a system which will only see minor use. Unlike the other teams, Waymo has been operating a service with no safety driver on board for years in Arizona.

What about more crashes?

All crashes that are the fault of a robocar are likely to involve some type of mistake. Unlike humans, who may get away with, “I just didn’t see him,” the robocar is always looking in all directions, and we can look inside its brain and usually know what caused the error, though that can be opaque if neural networks played a large role in the decision. And after every accident, the team will fairly quickly make sure that that type of accident doesn’t happen again, and every new revision will be tested again and again in simulator.

This means we have to adjust our reactions. If an accident caused by a mistake causes people, including regulators or the public to say, “we can’t have such a vehicle on our roads” we will never get them on the roads. We just learn to study the type of mistake, and whether it indicates the vehicle has been placed on the road far too early and recklessly, or it is of the type of crash that is going to be part of any period of learning. After all, we let freshly minted teen drivers on the road, knowing they are more dangerous than others, and will have crashes, but may take away their licences if they are reckless or get DUIs. That’s the only path that turns them into better mature drivers.

Making this determination will not be easy because all crashes will have a mistake at the root of them, one that, if we can look inside the brain, follow patterns of negligence. But unless you don’t believe the eventual goal of driving with much less risk than human drivers can ever be attained, the sooner vehicles get deployed, the sooner we get to that goal. The math tells a clear reason: Early vehicles which are more risky will be deployed only in small fleets, for relatively low total risk. Later vehicles which reduce risk and prevent accidents will be deployed at massive scale, reducing risk massively compared to human drivers, and compared to whatever early risk they presented when few in number. We don’t want to pass up that opportunity.

At-Fault Robotaxi Accidents For Waymo, Pony.AI, Olli And What They Mean For The Future

WASHINGTON, March 8 (Reuters) - Startup technology firm Pony.ai agreed to issue a recall for some versions of its autonomous driving system software after an October crash in California, U.S. regulators said on Tuesday.

The recall covers three vehicles that have been repaired, the company told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency said on Tuesday this was the "first recall of an automated driving system" and that the specific software at issue had been in use by three vehicles.

On Oct. 28, a Pony.ai vehicle that had been operating in autonomous mode hit a street sign on a median in Fremont, California, after turning right, prompting California in December to suspend the company's driverless testing permit. No one was injured in the incident.

Pony.ai said the crash occurred less than 2.5 seconds after the ADS shutdown.

Pony.ai, which is backed by Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), said that in very rare circumstances, a planning system diagnostic check "could generate a 'false positive' indication of a geolocation mismatch."

The company said in an emailed statement it has fully cooperated with NHTSA’s informal inquiry concerning the incident and had immediately suspended its testing program to conduct a thorough review.

NHTSA told Pony.ai it believed the software had a safety defect and requested the company to conduct a recall, Pony.ai said in a filing.

The company said it has updated the software code and the three affected vehicles have been repaired.

"Whether the vehicle is operated by a human driver or an automated driving system, the need to protect roadway users remains the same," NHTSA Deputy Administrator Steven Cliff said in a statement. "As this first recall of an automated driving system underscores, NHTSA will ensure that vehicle manufacturers and developers prioritize safety while they usher in the latest technologies."

Earlier this week, Pony.ai announced it had completed a new round of financing that gives it a valuation of $8.5 billion.

California said last year Pony.ai had 10 Hyundai Motor (005380.KS) Kona electric vehicles registered under its driverless testing permit. The suspension does not impact Pony.ai's permit for testing with a safety driver.

Startup Pony.ai agrees to automated driving software recall

Autonomous vehicle startup Pony.ai will issue a recall for three vehicles following an October crash in California, according to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The agency said on Tuesday that this was the first recall of an automated driving system, Reuters first reported.

“Whether the vehicle is operated by a human driver or an automated driving system, the need to protect roadway users remains the same,” NHTSA Deputy Administrator Steven Cliff said in a statement. “As this first recall of an automated driving system underscores, NHTSA will ensure that vehicle manufacturers and developers prioritize safety while they usher in the latest technologies.”

Toyota-backed Pony.ai had been testing its pilot fleet of 10 Hyundai Kona EVs without a human safety operator in California for several months when one of its vehicles collided with a lane divider and a street sign in Fremont. No other vehicles were involved, and no one was injured, but the incident prompted the California Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend Pony’s driverless testing permit, as well as a formal inquiry from NHTSA.

The agency told Pony.ai it believed the software had a safety defect and requested a recall, the startup said in a filing.

The software issue in the vehicle that crashed was also found in two other Pony.ai vehicles, all three of which have been repaired, according to the startup. Pony also said it has updated its software code.

“This was the first and only time such an incident has occurred in a Pony.ai autonomous vehicle,” a Pony.ai spokesperson told TechCrunch, noting that the startup has completed more than 6 million real-world autonomous driving miles and 305,617 miles driven autonomously in California last year.

Pony’s driverless permit will remain suspended until the DMV has verified that the startup has taken appropriate action to correct the deficiency that caused the suspension, an agency spokesperson told TechCrunch. Pony’s drivered testing permit in California remains unaffected.

Earlier this week, Pony.ai said its valuation has surged to $8.5 billion after the close of its Series D funding round. While the startup hasn’t had the best of luck in the United States, due to its U.S. trucking division all but dissolving and several key executives leaving to start rival companies, it is steadily building out its trucking and robotaxi business in China.

Update: This article was updated to include a statement from the California DMV.

Pony.ai to issue recall of autonomous driving software

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