Incident 293: Cruise’s Self-Driving Car Involved in a Multiple-Injury Collision at an San Francisco Intersection

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Pednekar, Sonali. (2022-06-03) Incident Number 293. in Lam, K. (ed.) Artificial Intelligence Incident Database. Responsible AI Collaborative.

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Khoa Lam

Incidents Reports

A Cruise autonomous vehicle ("Cruise AV") operating in driverless autonomous mode, was traveling eastbound on Geary Boulevard toward the intersection with Spruce Street. As it approached the intersection, the Cruise AV entered the left hand turn lane, turned the left turn signal on, and initiated a left turn on a green light onto Spruce Street. At the same time, a Toyota Prius traveling westbound in the rightmost bus and turn lane of Geary Boulevard approached the intersection in the right turn lane. The Toyota Prius was traveling approximately 40 mph in a 25 mph speed zone. The Cruise AV came to a stop before fully completing its turn onto Spruce Street due to the oncoming Toyota Prius, and the Toyota Prius entered the intersection traveling straight from the turn lane instead of turning. Shortly thereafter, the Toyota Prius made contact with the rear passenger side of the Cruise AV. The impact caused damage to the right rear door, panel, and wheel of the Cruise AV. Police and Emergency Medical Services were called to the scene, and a police report was filed. The Cruise AV was towed from the scene. Occupants of both vehicles received medical treatment for allegedly minor injuries.

Report of a Traffic Collision Involving an Autonomous Vehicle

On June 3, 2022, in San Francisco, California, a Cruise self-driving vehicle that was driving itself autonomously was involved in an accident with a Toyota Prius. People in both cars sustained injuries as a result of the crash.

According to Automotive News, the crash occurred only one day after regulators in California gave Cruise a critical permit related to its autonomous driving pursuits. The California Public Utilities Commission ruled that Cruise can collect fares from passengers taking rides in the car with no human safety driver behind the wheel. The permit was the first of its kind in The Golden State.

As the story goes, the Cruise car turned left in front of the oncoming Prius. It happened at the intersection of Geary Boulevard and Spruce Street. Officials from Cruise claim the autonomous vehicle stopped before proceeding with the left turn, and the self-driving car was actually sitting still when the Prius hit it.

Cruise went on to say that the driver of the Toyota was speeding. Moreover, the company's report claims the Prius was in a lane that required a right turn, though the human driver proceeded straight through the intersection. A spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department couldn't confirm or deny Cruise's interpretation of the story since an incident report was either unavailable or not completed in the first place.

Clearly, there is much more information needed in order to sort out exactly what happened in the crash. Carnegie Mellon University professor and autonomous-vehicle safety expert Phil Koopman noted that the specific behavior of both the human driver and the self-driving car will need to be taken into account. He shared:

"Many people have a word for a driver who cuts in front of them and then stops in the road, and it's not a polite or charitable word. There are a lot of unknowns here. We don't know if the Prius driver intended to turn right, but then swerved to try and avoid the crash with the stationary vehicle, for example. There are just a lot of unknowns."

Cruise shared that the car was in autonomous mode when the crash occurred. However, it didn't clarify if the person or people in the car were safety drivers, employees, passengers, or a combination. We do know that people in the car were not likely charged for the ride since the paid service hadn't yet started prior to the crash.

Regardless of who's to blame for the incident, multiple people were injured, and someone is responsible. This just goes to show that even once it seems self-driving cars may be ready for our roadways in some capacity, incidents are almost certain to occur. It will likely be a long and painstaking process to analyze the interaction between human drivers and robot cars to minimize incidents and determine fault.

Just weeks after the crash, a fleet of Cruise vehicles drove to the same intersection and blocked traffic for hours. Cruise apologized for the incident and called it a "technical issue."

GM's Cruise Self-Driving Car Crash Injured Multiple People

One day after California regulators awarded Cruise a milestone permit in its efforts to commercialize autonomous-driving technology, one of the company's vehicles was involved in a crash that resulted in multiple injuries.

The crash occurred in San Francisco on the night of June 3, when a Cruise vehicle operating in autonomous mode made a left turn in front of an oncoming Toyota Prius at the intersection of Geary Boulevard and Spruce Street.

Occupants of both vehicles were injured, according to a report Cruise filed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Todd Brugger, Cruise's vice president of global markets, wrote in the report that police and emergency medical services treated the occupants for "allegedly minor injuries."

General Motors-backed Cruise said its self-driving vehicle came to a stop in the roadway before completing its left turn, and was stationary when struck.

The company provided further statements about its interpretation of the position and behavior of the human-driven Toyota Prius in its filing, saying the Prius was speeding and that it had continued straight from a right-turn lane.

Those details could not be independently verified. A spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department could not find an incident report related to the crash Wednesday, and said it was possible no report was generated.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it opened a special investigation into the crash.

NHTSA's special crash investigations are separate from defect investigations used to determine if vehicles should be recalled. The agency has not opened a defect probe into Cruise. NHTSA has opened 45 special crash investigations into crashes since 2016 involving suspected automated and advanced driver systems; this is the first involving a Cruise vehicle.

A Cruise spokesperson declined Wednesday to say why the AV stopped before completing its turn.

Although the Cruise vehicle may have been stationary, Phil Koopman, a Carnegie Mellon University professor and autonomous-vehicle safety expert, said much more information would still be needed to assess the behavior of both humans and machine in the crash.

"Many people have a word for a driver who cuts in front of them and then stops in the road, and it's not a polite or charitable word," he said. "There are a lot of unknowns here. We don't know if the Prius driver intended to turn right, but then swerved to try and avoid the crash with the stationary vehicle, for example. There are just a lot of unknowns."

In its mandatory report, Cruise said the crash took place while the vehicle was in "driverless autonomous mode." The company spokesperson declined to provide more specifics on whether the human occupant or human occupants in the self-driving car was or were a ride-hailing passenger or an employee.

'Exciting step' came one day earlier

Though the crash occurred more than a month ago, details surrounding it only emerged this week.

It happened one day after the California Public Utilities Commission granted Cruise a permit to collect fares from passenger service open to the general public with no human safety driver present in select San Francisco streets under certain conditions, the first such permit issued in the state.

"This is another exciting step for our autonomous vehicle program," CPUC president Alice Reynolds said in a written statement at the time.

That paid service had not yet started at the time of the June 3 crash, but Cruise had been providing free rides for select customers for months.

A spokesperson with the California DMV, which oversees the state's autonomous vehicle program, said the agency's officials have had conversations with Cruise executives since the incident. The CPUC did not return a request for comment Wednesday.

The crash raises questions, as Koopman noted, about the interplay between human and automated drivers and how they communicate their intentions to each other. Further, Cruise declined to say whether its vehicles have side airbags or side-curtain airbags, and if so, whether they deployed during the crash, in which the Prius struck the rear passenger side of the autonomous vehicle.

Latest in series of incidents

The June 3 crash is one in a series of incidents involving the company's vehicles in San Francisco.

On June 28, several Cruise vehicles clustered at a city intersection and blocked traffic for several hours. The incident was not resolved until human operators removed the vehicles. At the time, a Cruise spokesperson attributed the blockage to a "technical issue" but did not elaborate.

In April, one of the company's AVs blocked the path of a San Francisco Fire Department truck en route to a blaze, and city officials later told the CPUC the incident slowed the response to a fire that left injuries in its wake. Also in April, a San Francisco police officer pulled over a Cruise vehicle because it was operating without headlights on at night. The vehicle then repositioned itself before the traffic stop was complete.

Collectively, Koopman said the incidents painted a problematic portrait. "Everything is very concerning here," he said. "With this crash in particular, there are a number of very concerning things upon a plain reading of the crash report. The onus should be on Cruise to prove they're still safe to operate."

Cruise self-driving crash in San Francisco resulted in injuries; NHTSA investigating

WASHINGTON, July 7 (Reuters) - The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened a special investigation into a recent crash of a Cruise self-driving vehicle in California that resulted in minor injuries, the agency said on Thursday.

The auto safety agency did not identify the specific crash, but a Cruise vehicle operating in driverless autonomous mode was involved in a crash involving minor injuries on June 3 in San Francisco, according to a report filed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

The state agency told Reuters it "has had conversions with Cruise officials regarding the incident."

Self-driving car maker Cruise, which is majority-owned by General Motors (GM.N), said it was not issued a citation by police in the incident. Cruise said it had provided NHTSA with "routine information" the agency had sought in its special crash investigation.

NHTSA's special crash investigations are separate from defect investigations used to determine if vehicles should be recalled. The agency has not opened a defect probe into Cruise.

NHTSA has opened 45 special crash investigations into crashes since 2016 involving suspected automated and advanced driver systems; this is the first involving a Cruise vehicle.

In the report filed on the June 3 crash, Cruise said its vehicle entered a left-hand-turn lane and signaled for a turn, and then initiated a left turn on the green light.

At the same time, a 2016 Toyota Prius approached the intersection in the right-turn lane from the opposite direction traveling about 40 miles per hour in a 25 mph speed zone.

The Cruise autonomous vehicle stopped before completing the turn due to the oncoming Prius, which entered the intersection and made contact with the rear passenger side of the Cruise, which was later towed from the scene, the report said. Occupants of both vehicles received medical treatment for allegedly minor injuries, Cruise said.

On June 23, Cruise said it had started charging fares for driverless rides in San Francisco. Cruise earlier in June became the first company to secure a permit to charge for self-driving rides there, after it overcame objections by local officials.

Self-driving test cars with human safety drivers have become a constant sight in San Francisco, and completely driverless ones are increasingly common, too. Turning them into a fledgling business in a major U.S. city marks a milestone in the long- delayed journey toward driverless taxi service.

U.S. agency probing self-driving Cruise car crash in California

Description of the Defect: In a rare circumstance described below, a safety feature in the prior version of the subject ADS, known as the reflexive planner, caused the AV to hard brake while performing an unprotected left turn (“UPL”) when the ADS determined a hard brake was necessary to avoid a severe front-end collision with an oncoming vehicle or other road use. Cruise has decided to submit this voluntary report in the interest of transparency to the public and based on its discussions with NHTSA. Only one such incident has occurred in over 123,560 driverless UPLs performed prior to the updated software release. The incident involved an oncoming vehicle traveling well above the speed limit in a restricted right-turn/bus-only lane as the Cruise AV was performing a UPL. As the Cruise AV turned left and began traversing the intersection, the Cruise AV predicted that the oncoming vehicle, which was traveling approximately 40 mph in the 25 mph right-turn lane, would turn right and directly into the path of the Cruise AV. After the Cruise AV braked to avoid colliding with the front end of the oncoming vehicle, the oncoming vehicle suddenly moved out of the right-turn lane and proceeded straight through the intersection colliding with the rear right quarter panel of the Cruise AV. Cruise has determined that in this unique UPL situation, the ADS had to decide between two different risk scenarios and chose the one with the least potential for a serious collision at the time, before the oncoming vehicle’s sudden change of direction. Cruise has determined this scenario would not recur after a software update installed on all affected vehicles on July 6, 2022.

Description of the Safety Risk: In the rare circumstances described above, a Cruise AV with the subject ADS version may, when making a UPL, not have correctly predicted nor was been sufficiently reactive to the sudden path change of a road user violating demarcated lane usage and operating at excessive speed, which could increase the risk of a crash.

Chronology: On June 3, 2022, a Cruise AV, operating in driverless mode, was involved in a collision with another vehicle. The next day, Cruise reported the incident to NHTSA in accordance with NHTSA’s Standing General Order. Cruise also immediately began an investigation of the crash.

As part of its investigation, Cruise obtained the police report of this crash. The police report found, among other things, the “party at most fault” for the collision was the other vehicle, which was “traveling in the ... right turn only lane at a speed that was greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for the safety of others on the roadway.” However, in an abundance of caution and in accordance with its safety practices and policies, Cruise implemented certain mitigation measures, including disabling unprotected left turns from the fleet, and reducing the ODD to a smaller geofence. Since releasing the new software update on July 6, 2022, Cruise has gradually reintroduced UPLs in its fleet.

During its investigation, Cruise met with NHTSA multiple times, providing updates and analyses of the subject crash and the ADS behavior, as well as explanations of next steps and mitigation measures, as noted above. Cruise presented information to NHTSA that, during the incident, Cruise AV’s reflexive planner feature recognized a front-end collision risk created by a speeding vehicle, which reasonably indicated that it would take a right because it was in the right hand turn lane. The Cruise AV stopped to avoid the collision risk and create a path for the other vehicle. The Cruise AV had to decide between two different risk scenarios and chose the one with the least potential for a serious collision. [continued on attached report]

Description of Remedy Program: As part of the normal course of Cruise’s continuous improvement and release process, on July 6, 2022, Cruise released a new software update that, among other things, improves the ADS’s predictive performance in various ways, including conditions similar to the singular, exceptional event that is the subject of this filing. Cruise has determined that the ADS would have selected a different path that averted the collision.

Description of Recall Schedule: Cruise AVs have never been offered for sale to third parties and are solely owned by Cruise or GM. As such, there are no owners or dealers to notify under 49 C.F.R. Parts 573 or 577 and part 577 is therefore inapplicable.

Part 573 Safety Recall Report

Washington, DC (CNN Business) — This week Cruise, which counts General Motors as its largest shareholder, became the first robotaxi operator to recall its vehicles, following a June crash involving “major” damage and minor passenger injuries.

The crash occurred after the Cruise robotaxi making a left turn stopped in the intersection, thinking that an oncoming vehicle would turn in front of it. But the oncoming vehicle instead drove straight, striking the Cruise vehicle. Both the San Francisco police department and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched investigations.

Cruise has said that the oncoming vehicle drove in the right-turn lane and was traveling at “approximately 40 mph” in a 25-mph lane before it exited the lane and proceeded forward. Cruise acknowledged in its recall filing that its robotaxi was not “sufficiently reactive.” Cruise spokeswoman Hannah Lindow declined to say what the Cruise vehicle could have done differently, and declined to release video of the crash.

Nevertheless, 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 it has already issued a software update that it says improves the robotaxis’ ability to predict what other vehicles will do, including in conditions similar to the crash.

Tesla, arguably a Cruise competitor in the long-term, has been criticized in the past for making software updates to its vehicles while not always issuing a recall. NHTSA has been more proactive on recalls of late and Tesla issued four recalls in a 12-day span earlier this year.

Software updates like what Cruise did, often called “over-the-air-updates,” are generally not financially burdensome to companies in the way traditional recalls have been, because there aren’t costs for physical parts and the 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 law school who researchers autonomous vehicles, told CNN Business. “It’s to the company’s credit that they treated this particular safety-relevant update as a recall under federal law.”

Cruise continued to operate its robotaxi service in San Francisco following the crash. But at some point after the crash, which Cruise didn’t disclose, it disabled its vehicles’ ability to make unprotected left turns and reduced the area where its robotaxis operated. Cruise has gradually reintroduce unprotected left turns since making the software update on July 6. An unprotected left turn is a turn where there is not a left-turn signal that indicates when it’s a vehicles’ opportunity to go.

Unprotected left turns are generally considered one of the more challenging things that a fully autonomous vehicle performs. Waymo’s robotaxis in Arizona, for example, sometimes avoid these turns to help minimize risks.

Cruise became the second company to offer a fully autonomous ridehail service when it launched in San Francisco in February, but only during late-night hours. The collision that led to the recall occurred at 11 pm, according to Cruise’s report filed to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Cruise’s robotaxis have delighted some passengers but also have had shortcoming, including technical glitches and flaws like blocking a firetruck responding to a multi-alarm fire this April, according to the San Francisco Fire Department. Photos have also surfaced of a group of Cruise vehicles blocking lanes on a San Francisco street.

Developing and operating robotaxis is extremely difficult and expensive. Cruise has added shareholders in addition to GM, including Honda, Microsoft and Walmart. Cruise lost $500 million in the second quarter of this year, according to GM financial filings.

GM CEO Mary Barra said last month that the market for robotaxis would probably be several billion dollars once robotaxis rides were available for $1 per mile, cheaper than human-driven Uber and Lyft’s, which are often several dollars per mile and sometimes more.

“It’s very much going to be a big part of how we move from point A to point B because it’s safer,” Barra told Fox Business.

NHTSA has no performance standards for fully autonomous vehicles like Cruise’s, but has said it will pursue recalls as needed.

Cruise recalls its robotaxis after passenger injured in crash

AUTONOMOUS DRIVING COMPANY Cruise and US regulators said today that the General Motors subsidiary had recalled software deployed on 80 vehicles after two people were injured in a June crash involving a Cruise car operating autonomously in San Francisco. The incident occurred one day after the state of California granted Cruise a permit to start a commercial driverless ride-hail service in the state. The flawed software was updated by early July, Cruise said in a filing with the US National Highway Traffic Safety Agency.

The crash occurred when a Cruise vehicle attempting to make an unprotected left turn across a two-lane street was struck by a car that was traveling in the opposite direction and speeding in a turn lane. Cruise said in its NHTSA filing that its software had predicted that the other car would turn right and determined that it was necessary to brake hard in the midst of its own vehicle’s left turn to avoid a front-end collision. But the other vehicle continued straight through the intersection, T-boning the now stationary Cruise car.

At least one person in the speeding vehicle and one Cruise employee riding in the autonomous vehicle were treated for injuries, according to a report that Cruise submitted to the California Department of Motor Vehicles in June. Cruise responded to the incident by putting its robot cars on a tighter leash until their software was updated. The company reduced the area of San Francisco the vehicles operated in and barred them from making left turns altogether.

Cruise said in its NHTSA filing that the software update improves its self-driving software’s predictions, especially in situations like the one that led to the crash. The company said it has determined that if the vehicle involved in the June 3 incident had been running the current software, no crash would have occurred.

The recall is just the NHTSA’s second to involve fully self-driving software. In March, the self-driving developer recalled three self-driving vehicles after it found that a software error caused the system to shut down unexpectedly while its vehicles were in motion. The company said all affected vehicles were repaired. The increasing amount of software in vehicles means that more vehicle recalls—even among human-driven cars—can be accomplished through over-the-air updates.

In a written statement on the Cruise recall, NHTSA head Steven Cliff said the agency continues to investigate crashes involving self-driving vehicles and will “ensure that vehicle manufacturers and developers prioritize the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists, and other vulnerable road users.” Cruise met with NHTSA officials multiple times to discuss the crash, according to the recall filing.

Cruise spokesperson Hannah Lindow said in a written statement that the software issue has been resolved. “Cruise AVs are even better equipped to prevent this singular, exceptional event,” Lindow wrote. Right now, Cruise’s service operates in 70 percent of the city between 10 pm and 6 am, except during rain or fog. Interested riders must apply to use the service. The robots can make left turns again.

Two other companies, Alphabet subsidiary Waymo and the robotic delivery company Nuro, have also received permits to deploy commercial self-driving services in California. In San Francisco, Waymo offers select members of the public paid rides with an employee in the car to monitor its technology.

One person who used Cruise’s autonomous ride-hail service in San Francisco told WIRED this summer that his taxi trip took less-than-direct routes around the city, presumably to avoid the busiest streets. In a recent interview with WIRED, General Motors president Mark Reuss said, “I’ll take a complaint like, ‘It took me a little longer to get there than it may have under other circumstances, but it took the safest route, and it managed the interfaces with human drivers better than what I thought.’”

Cruise’s San Francisco operations have had a troublesome few months. According to internal messages previously reported on by WIRED, the self-driving vehicle developer suffered several incidents in which the company lost touch with its driverless vehicles on San Francisco roads, requiring Cruise employees to fetch and sometimes tow them back to the company’s garages.

In a few instances, the stopped vehicles jammed up city streets. In May, a Cruise employee sent an anonymous letter to California’s Public Utilities Commission outlining what they alleged to be unsafe practices within the company. The regulator is investigating the allegations.

After the June crash, Jeff Bleich, ​​chief legal officer at Cruise, encouraged employees to stay focused on their jobs and warned that crashes would likely increase in frequency as the company scaled up its self-driving services, according to a recording reviewed by WIRED. “We just have to understand that at some point this is now going to be a part of the work that we do, and that means staying focused on the work ahead,” he said. Cruise says its safety record is monitored by several government regulators, and that its record “speaks for itself.”

GM's Cruise Recalls Self-Driving Software Involved in June Crash