On Oct. 2 at approximately 9:30 p.m., a pedestrian was struck by a human-driven car in a hit-and-run incident in downtown San Francisco, propelling her into the path of a Cruise autonomous vehicle (AV). She was then trapped and dragged approximately 20 feet as the Cruise car attempted to pull over. The Cruise AV reportedly reached speeds up to seven miles per hour with the passenger trapped beneath the car.
The pedestrian, who was crossing the street without the right of way, was rescued using the “jaws of life,” a hydraulic tool used to rescue those trapped in or under heavy vehicles. She “remains in serious condition” according to the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, via the San Francisco Chronicle.
On Oct. 24, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) suspended Cruise’s permit to commercially operate their fleet of driverless cars in San Francisco, due to safety concerns over the incident.
This incident follows a few months after the end of USF’s participation in Cruise’s pilot program, which offered free rides to students between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. from January to May.
The DMV alleges that they did not receive the entirety of the footage of the accident from Cruise and instead were shown a video that ended prematurely. According to the DMV’s Order of Suspension, “Cruise did not disclose that any additional movement” had happened “after the initial stop of the vehicle.” Further, the DMV says that it was not until after hearing from “another government agency” that the DMV knew of the missing footage.
Cruise has since denied the allegation, stating in a blog post that their team “proactively shared information with the California Department of Motor Vehicles… including the whole video.”
Additionally, Cruise said that, according to their simulations and analysis of “the real world scenario, the AV” had reacted to “the individual deflected in its path within 460 milliseconds, faster than most human drivers.”
The idea that Cruise’s have quicker-than-human reaction times is a significant part of the argument for the implementation of autonomous vehicles. William Riggs is a USF professor and one of the directors of the Autonomous Vehicles and the City Initiative. This initiative is a program dedicated to “creating synergy between industries and city leaders to promote research” on AVs as safe, accessible, and late night modes of transportation, according to Riggs. On the topic of the safety of AVs, Riggs said, “both personally and professionally, these vehicles drive probably 6-8 times better” than the average person is able to. In regard to this specific incident, Riggs said “the primary vehicle at fault was driven by a human driver… from an engineering standpoint and driving standpoint, there’s nothing that the Cruise vehicle could have done to avoid this collision.”
On campus, the opinions surrounding Cruise and other AVs seem to vary. In the spring semester of the 2022-2023 academic year, Cruise and USF began their Research Rider Pilot Program, which rolled out access to utilizing the self-driving vehicles to students who signed up. According to USF Spokesperson Kellie Samson, “No reports,” regarding any issues between students and Cruise, “were brought to the University’s attention.”
Alec Paredes, a junior biology major, was one of the students who used Cruise’s free services. Even once the program had ended and students had to pay, Paredes continued to use it. “Getting home from work is like $11 with Lyft or Uber, and then there’s a tip, but on Cruise it’s always a flat, nine dollar rate,” said Paredes.
Melissa Quintana, a junior politics major, has experienced a few technical incidents using Cruise in the past. “There have been times where it’s stopped randomly in the middle of the street, and the operator came on and had to help us,” said Quintana.
“There has to be trial and error for the advancement of any technology, so I understand why they’re there, but I also understand the controversy of them being on the street. I have more trust in a human’s ability to correct a mistake than a robot’s,” Quintana continued.
However, this suspension of license does not yet mean we will see the complete removal of Cruise AVs from the city. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “the company is still allowed to test its technology with a safety driver.”
In Cruise’s blog post, they noted that “This incident will be included in future suites of simulation tests,” in order to examine how the AV should respond in similar situations.