Cruise restarts AD trials with renewed technical focus

GM subsidiary will revisit core performance of its technology, not just its communication strategy

Cruise restarts AD trials with renewed technical focus
Cruise will begin supervised trials this week in Arizona

GM robotaxi subsidiary Cruise has restarted supervised autonomous driving trials in Phoenix, AZ, after the firm's license was suspended in relation to an October incident which injured a pedestrian.

Starting this week, Cruise autonomous EVs will begin supervised autonomous driving in Phoenix.

"For the past several weeks Cruise has been mapping and collecting road information in Phoenix. Now, we will validate our AV’s end-to-end behaviours against our rigorous safety and AV performance requirements," the company says. "During this phase, the Cruise vehicles will drive autonomously with a safety driver present behind the wheel to monitor and take over if needed."

In January, Cruise was found to have concealed details of the October incident from California DMV regulators, leading to the suspension of the company's operations in San Francisco, as well as the resignation of CEO Kyle Vogt. Cruise then voluntary shut down its operations in all of its other city markets.

But it was not just a cover-up or lack of cooperation with investigators which saw Cruise's operating licenses suspended. Technical faults were found in its sensor technology, including incorrect lane mapping and the car incorrectly interpreting the collision as a side impact rather than a front impact.

Cruise admitted fault for its lack of transparency but has long been steadfast about the soundness of its core robotaxi technology. As such, Cruise's decision to return to operations with supervising drivers indicates an acknowledgement that the companies woes lie not only in corporate strategy errors, but that the tech may also need honing before before rushing to scale.

"Supervised autonomous driving is a critical validation phase prior to driverless deployment and builds on our extensive work in simulation, closed-course driving and more than 5mn driverless miles previously driven by our fleet to ensure safe performance on real-world roads and driving scenarios," Cruise says.

A more measured path towards AD commercialisation underpinned rival US autonomy firm Motional's round of layoffs this week, with the company's CEO Karl Iagnemma saying that "large-scale deployment of AVs remains a goal for the future, not the present".

"Driverless vehicles will enter the market when the technology has evolved, and, just as importantly, when the business case for autonomous deployment is clear," Iagnemna says."

Lidar row-back?

In other robotaxi news, Austin Russell, CEO of US Lidar firm Luminar has revealed that Tesla has become a significant customer, contributing to over 10pc of Luminar's Q1 revenue through purchases of Lidar sensors.

Tesla's robotaxi program, which has recently become the firm's priority, has long rejected the use of Lidar, preferring to use a suite of cameras on its vehicles to read the environment.

However, while Tesla has been purchasing Lidar sensors since 2016 for a prototype benchmarking exercise it calls 'ground-truthing', Luminar's comments suggest an uptick in these purchases, with Russel revealing that an NDA initiated by Tesla means that "what exactly they are doing [with the Lidars], we can only speculate".

Separately, US highway safety regulator the NHTSA has opened a preliminary investigation into Google's self-driving subsidiary Waymo, on concerns of its vehicle not operating as expected.

The NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation says it has received reports of 22 incidents involving Waymo vehicles equipped with the firm's fifth generation automated driving system (ADS), wherein the ADS-equipped vehicle was the sole vehicle operated during a collision or wherein the ADS-equipped vehicle exhibited driving behaviour that potentially violated traffic safety laws.

These reported incidents include collisions with stationary and semi-stationary objects such as gates and chains, collisions with parked vehicles, and instances in which the ADS appeared to disobey traffic safety control devices. In certain incidents, a collision occurred shortly after the ADS exhibited unexpected behaviour near traffic safety control devices. 

"Based on initial evaluation of these incidents, NHTSA understands that the Waymo ADS was either engaged throughout the incident or, in certain cases when supervised by an in-vehicle test driver, the ADS disengaged in the moments just before an incident occurred," the regulator says.

The investigation will evaluate the ADS’ performance in detecting and responding to traffic control devices and in avoiding collisions with stationary and semi-stationary objects and vehicles.

This is the second preliminary evaluation into ADS failures that the NHTSA has launched in the last week. Earlier this month, it opened proceedings after two reports of collisions involving Toyotas equipped with an ADS system provuided by Amazon AD subsidiary Zoox.

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In each instance, the Zoox-equipped vehicles unexpectedly braked suddenly, leading to rear-end collisions, resulting in a motorcyclist following the vehicle colliding with it and suffering minor injuries. "Both collisions occurred during daytime lighting conditions and within the operational design domain of the Zoox ADS," the NHTSA says.

This investigation will evaluate Zoox ADS performance, particularly relating to these collisions, but also behaviour on crosswalks around vulnerable road users and in other similar rear-end collision scenarios.

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