California revokes Cruise’s permit for driverless cars on public roads (update)

Cruise, the robotaxi subsidiary of General Motors, has lost its permit to deploy its self-driving cars in California with immediate effect. The decision from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) follows after investigating a pedestrian accident. Waymo, the competitor to Cruises, can still operate paid driverless rides.

To re-install public faith in self-driving technology, GM has decided to bring its robotaxi services to a full stop, withdrawing 600 cars. Operations in Austin, Houston, and Phoenix, have also been temporarily suspended.

Failing at a complete stop

In early October, a pedestrian was hit in San Francisco by a car with a human driver, which fled the scene but pushed the victim into the pathway of an upcoming Cruise taxi. The unmanned vehicle braked but couldn’t avoid hitting the pedestrian, which got severely injured.

Based on video footage, an investigation from the DMV concluded that the Cruise car didn’t stop entirely after hitting the pedestrian but tried to pull over, awaiting emergency vehicles, dragging the person stuck underneath several meters further down the road at a little more than 10 km/hour. The pedestrian survived, but the first aid rescuing crew experienced difficulties freeing the stuck person.

The DMV deems the deployment of Cruise vehicles too dangerous for use in traffic and has, therefore, withdrawn the company’s San Francisco permit, affecting 400 Cruise cars, the majority of its fleet. The safety body says the car can’t make qualified emergency decisions. It also accuses Cruise of withholding crucial information about the accident after the company held back on the video footage.

Cruise has halted its self-driving operations almost completely. In Phoenix, Houston, and Austin, some cars remain in traffic but with a human safety driver on board, which can intervene in case of an emergency situation.

Waymo off the hook

The ban is a blow for Level 4 robotaxi operations, which were only recently approved for expanded commercial use in San Francisco, meaning they could also operate during the daytime. However, as the decision affects Cruise only, competitor Waymo, a subsidiary of Google, is allowed to proceed.

In San Francisco, Cruise came in first at offering paid driverless taxi rides but featured more often in the news with several mishaps, from cars driving into wet concrete at road construction works, blocking crossings, and freezing in traffic situations, which were complex to address for the vehicle. As for accidents with pedestrians, two cases were reported.

Echo in Japan

In an official reaction, General Motors said: “The most important thing for us right now is to take steps to restore public confidence (…) even if that means doing things that are uncomfortable or difficult.”

Two days before the permit withdrawal, CEO of GM Mary Barra cited that autonomously driving cars cause much fewer accidents than human drivers. GM wants to be at the forefront of autonomous driving technology but at a high cost. The company reported a loss of 1,8 billion euros on behalf of its daughter Cruise, celebrating its tenth birthday this year.

Lastly, a big question remains: How will the decision from the DMV echo in Japan? Only last week, General Motors announced that it would assemble a self-driving robotaxi for deployment in Tokyo under the umbrella of a joint venture with partner Honda and its subdivision Cruise.

However, another agreement between both parties concerning the development of an affordable EV was axed this week on the initiative of Honda, which cited a “changing business environment” as an explanation for its change of heart.


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