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AV R&D MADNESS

I AM LESS THAN ENTHUSIASTIC about autonomous vehicles. To confirm this, you need only check out a few examples here at SimanaitisSays: “Where Are Self-Driving Cars Headed?” February 21, 2016, “Who Wants Driverless Cars?” April 8, 2017, “The Psychology of Driving July 27, 2021, and “My Street a Proving Ground??” October 24, 2021.

This last one is particularly cogent, given a recent article, also in Automotive News: “San Francisco Feeling Left Out of Conversation about AVs,” by Pete Bigelow, July 31, 2022. At issue is public roadways being used for research and development of autonomous vehicles. What’s more, this reveals a “blank space” in motor vehicle regulations.

A Regulatory Blank Space. Early in AV development, Bigelow notes, “Cities once feared federal AV legislation would preempt their traditional authority to manage their streets. As those efforts fizzled and state laws either stayed in place or were enacted, those fears dissipated.”

“But in California, as in many other states,” Bigelow observes, “regulations and policies that address autonomous-vehicle deployments are enacted at the state level.”

On the Streets of San Francisco. An example began on June 2, 2022, with driverless robotaxis operated by GM’s Cruise being permitted on the streets of San Francisco. Other competitors Google’s Waymo and Amazon’s Zoox “are gearing up to join Cruise there,” notes Bigelow. 

Image from Automotive News, July 31, 2022.

This is despite the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s opposition last year to Cruise’s application. One problem was, and remains, robotaxis’ picking up and dropping off passengers other than at curbside. At this point, the agency has responsibilities for the city’s municipal railway, traffic engineering, bicycle and pedestrian safety, taxi regulations, accessibility and more—but apparently not robotaxis. “We can’t even write citations on those vehicles,” agency director Jeffery Tumlin told Bigelow.

A Matter of Scale: The California vehicle code permits commercial operations such as FedEx or Amazon to stop in a “travel lane” for pickup or delivery. However, the potential number of robotaxis is considerably greater that these delivery operations’.

Image in Automotive News, July 31, 2022, from REUTERS.

But Wait.There’s More. Bigelow reports, “In April, a city police officer pulled over a Cruise vehicle for traveling without headlights at night. The vehicle then repositioned itself, pulling away from the officer, before the traffic stop was complete.”

“Later that month,” Bigelow documents, “a Cruise vehicle blocked the path of a San Francisco Fire Department truck en route to a blaze that resulted in injuries and property damage.” 

And on June 28, Bigelow says, “Cruise vehicles clustered at a busy intersection in San Francisco and they blocked traffic for hours until humans removed them. [Agency director] Tumlin said he learned of that incident from 911 calls, the city’s Department of Emergency Management and media reports.”

“Those vehicles blocked traffic on one of our most important arterials, and it wasn’t until sometime later we realized this was a systemic problem across much of the city,” Tumlin said. An alleged Cruise whistleblower told regulators such clusters occur with regularity.”

Geez. How long should the feds, states, or cities encourage our public roads and streets being used as testing grounds? Can’t these clusterings and other systemic shortcomings be simulated and resolved before exposing the greater public? And, please, don’t get me—or Automotive News—started on Tesla and its “Autopilot.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022  

One comment on “AV R&D MADNESS

  1. Mike B
    August 8, 2022

    So I guess GM is following part of Tesla’s philosophy here: break things. SF traffic is a disaster even with hairless chimps doing the driving. Spoken as a hairless chimp who learned to drive there, in the 1960s, with a stick shift. Adding AVs that occasionally lose their minds and just stop expands the entertainment potential enormously. (/s) Why can’t “self-driving” include “pull over if you have to stop for unplanned reasons?”

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