Driverless Cruise cars hold up traffic for hours at San Francisco intersection

4 Jul 2022

Image: Cruise

It was reported that as many as 20 Cruise cars blocked several lanes of traffic for two hours. The company did not specify the cause of the incident.

Cruise, the self-driving car business owned by General Motors, has had a setback to its driverless taxi service one month after it secured approval to operate commercially in San Francisco.

A swarm of the company’s self-driving vehicles blocked several lanes of traffic at the intersection of Gough Street and Fulton Street in the city last week.

It is unclear how many vehicles were involved in the disruption, but an eyewitness told the San Francisco Examiner that as many as 20 Cruise vehicles were motionless for two hours, before employees arrived to remove them.

A company spokesperson confirmed to CNBC that it had an issue “that caused some of our vehicles to cluster together”. The spokesperson said no passengers were impacted but did not specify the cause of the incident.

Photos of the traffic hold-up were shared on Reddit and Twitter, in which a bunch of Cruise robotaxis are visible on several lanes of the road.

This issue comes less than a month after California issued its first ever Driverless Deployment Permit to the company, allowing Cruise to charge fares for driverless taxis.

Under this permit, up to 30 Cruise vehicles are allowed to operate between 10pm and 6am on selected streets of San Francisco. The service is currently limited to overnight hours and avoids San Francisco’s busy downtown area as part of its passenger safety plan, which was part of the permit application.

Alphabet subsidiary Waymo, Cruise’s chief competitor, also has a driverless car permit for California but it requires a safety operator to be present during rides. Waymo has, however, been operating a fully autonomous commercial taxi service in Arizona for a couple of years.

The recent incident could put a roadblock in the way of Cruise’s plans to expand the size of its fleet in San Francisco. The road congestion is the latest in a series of criticisms aimed at the company’s vehicles.

Cruise’s fleet has been previously criticised for its inability to pull over to the curb, meaning cars stop in traffic lanes to allow passengers on and off. The lack of a responsive driver can also cause problems in emergency situations, such as one in which a Cruise vehicle reportedly blocked a San Francisco fire tender on its way to a call-out.

There’s also the risk of injury. Documents seen by Reuters revealed that Cruise’s autonomous vehicles were involved in 34 accidents involving bodily harm or more than $1,000 in damage during a four-year period. Data from these incidents has been used to improve the technology and mitigate future accidents.

Other tech companies have struggled in the race to deploy driverless vehicle services. Ride-hailing giant Uber made an attempt at cracking driverless tech but ended up selling its autonomous cars division to Aurora Technologies in late 2020.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk had said the electric vehicle company would have a robotic taxi fleet in operation by the end of 2020, a promise unfulfilled as of 2022.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic