General Motors’ big bet on autonomous vehicles, like most human drivers, could stand to improve its left turns.
The GM-backed Cruise autonomous vehicle startup was forced to recall 80 of its vehicles and correct its software following a June crash where one of its vehicles may have incorrectly predicted an oncoming vehicle’s path. The crash reportedly left two people injured.
According to the National High Safety Traffic Administration’s (NHTSA) recall report, a safety feature called the “reflexive planner” caused the vehicle to slam on the brakes while performing an unprotected left turn. In this case, the Cruise AV reportedly predicted an oncoming vehicle traveling around 20 miles per hour over the speed in the opposing right turn lane would turn right and collide with it while it was making its left turn. The Cruise car hit the brakes only to have the oncoming vehicle move out of the lane and drive straight, eventually striking the back of the Cruise AV. According to the report, the Cruise vehicle, “had to decide between two different risk scenarios and chose the one with the least potential for a serious collision at the time.”
That decision wasn’t perfect. The recall notes Crusie’s vehicles may have performed the turn without correctly predicting the path change of the other driver which could ultimately, “increase the risk of a crash.” Though a police report filed after the crash determined the human driver was at the most fault in this case, Cruise nonetheless moved to restrict unprotected left turns from its fleet and worked to implement a corrective software update. Cruise says it gradually began reintroducing unprotected left turns to its fleet following the software update.
The report described the braking issue as “rare,” and said only one issue had occurred in 123,560 unprotected left turns by the driverless cars. Autonomous vehicle die-hards would say that mishaps like these are the exceptions that prove the rule and that more autonomous vehicles lead to less crashes than human counterparts.
In an email sent to Gizmodo, Cruise said it willingly submitted its filing to the NHTSA in an act of transparency.
“We submitted this voluntary filing in the interest of transparency to the public; it pertains to a prior version of the software and does not impact or change our current on-road operations,” a Cruise spokesperson said. “Rather, the report explains how the Cruise AV responded to an oncoming vehicle speeding in the wrong lane, and how through our normal course of continuous improvements, Cruise AVs are even better equipped to prevent this singular, exceptional event.”
In a statement sent to Gizmodo, the NHTSA acknowledged the recall and said all driverless car manufacturers are required, by law, to report safety defects in automated driving systems.
“Whether the vehicle is operated by a human driver or an automated driving system, the need to protect roadway users remains the same.” NHTSA Administrator Dr. Steven Cliff said in an email “As NHTSA continues to investigate crashes tied to automated vehicles, it will ensure that vehicle manufacturers and developers prioritize the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists, and other vulnerable road users.”
Though Cruise categorized these issues as rare, polling shows crashes involving autonomous vehicles leave a lasting impression on drivers. Just 21% of U.S. adults polled by the Pew Research Center in March said they’d feel “extremely comfortable” sharing the road with driverless cars. A far higher share, (45%) said they wouldn’t feel comfortable at all with that prospect. Worse still, just 26% of adults think driverless cars, in general, are a net good for society. Nearly half (44%) think they are bad.
Those differences of opinion diverge along gender lines as well. In a more recent Pew poll 53% of men said they probably or definitely would ride in a driverless passenger vehicle if they could, compared to just 46% of women who said so.
Update 12:50 P.M: Added statement from NHTSA.