Around midnight On June 28, Calvin Hu was driving with his girlfriend near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco when he stopped at an intersection behind two white and orange autonomous Chevrolet Bolts operated by Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors. Another was stopped to his right in the adjacent lane. The light was green, but the cars that operate in the city without a driver did not move.
As Hu prepared to reverse and go around the frozen vehicles, he says, he noticed several more Cruise vehicles had stopped in the lanes behind him. Hu, another driver and a paratransit bus were trapped in a sandwich of robot taxi vehicles.
After a few minutes of confused waiting, Hu says, he resorted to driving over the curb to escape. When he returned on foot a few minutes later to see if the situation had been resolved, the Cruise vehicles had not moved. A person who appeared to work for the company parked at the intersection, Hu said, as if to signal that the street was closed, and was trying to direct traffic away from the stationary self-driving cars. Hu estimated that the robot car’s blockade, which had not been previously reported, lasted at least 15 minutes.
The cruise vehicles that captured Hu weren’t the only autonomous cars that stopped traffic in San Francisco that night. Internal messages seen by WIRED show that nearly 60 vehicles were disabled across the city in a 90-minute period after they lost contact with the Cruise server. As many as 20 cars, some of which were stopped at pedestrian crossings, caused a traffic jam in the city center in the first-reported incident San Francisco Examiner and detailed in photos posted on Reddit. In a written statement, the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which oversees the operation of autonomous vehicles in the state, said it was aware of the incident and would meet with Cruise to “gather additional information.”
The June 28 outburst was not Cruise’s first. On the evening of May 18, the company lost contact with its entire fleet for 20 minutes as its cars were stopped on the street, according to internal documents reviewed by WIRED. Company staff could not see where the vehicles were or communicate with the drivers inside. Worst of all, the company was unable to access its system that allows remote operators to safely steer stalled vehicles to the side of the road.
A letter anonymously sent by a Cruise employee to the California Public Utilities Commission that month and reviewed by WIRED said the company loses contact with its driverless vehicles “regularly,” blocking traffic and potentially impeding emergency vehicles. Vehicles can sometimes only be returned with a tow truck, the letter said. Images and video posted on social networks in May and June show Cruise vehicles have seemingly inexplicably stopped in traffic lanes in San Francisco, while the city’s pedestrians and drivers navigate around them.
Cruise spokeswoman Tiffany Testo says the cars stuck on May 18 “were able to be moved as part of the suite of back-up systems that Cruise has in place.” She issued a written statement saying the company’s vehicles are programmed to stop and flash their hazard lights when they encounter a technical problem or meet road conditions they cannot handle. “We are working to reduce how often this happens, but it is and will remain an aspect of our overall security operations,” the statement said. Testo did not respond to questions about multiple incidents in which Cruise vehicles stopped in traffic.
The disruptions come at a crucial time for Cruise, which is ramping up its autonomous vehicle program on the twisty streets of San Francisco as it competes with well-capitalized rivals such as Google sister company Waymo, Aurora and Amazon-owned Zoox. In the spring, General Motors bought SoftBank Vision Fund’s $2.1 billion stake in Cruise and invested another $1.35 billion in the self-driving unit. A little more than two weeks after the May outage that froze Cruise’s fleet, the CPUC approved Cruise’s license to charge money for Uber-like rides — paving the way for a fully commercial robotaxi service that could help the company start recouping the billions it invested in building its technology.