Transportation

SF Traffic May Actually Benefit Self-Driving Car Testing

According to Cruise, the self-driving division of General Motors, Bay Area traffic is putting the autonomous technology through its paces.

by Carolyn Said, San Francisco Chronicle / October 4, 2017
Cruise Automation co-founders Daniel Kan and Kyle Vogt (right) chat about a self-driving car in the GM-owned unit’s San Francisco garage. The Chronicle/Gabrielle Lurie

(TNS) -- San Francisco traffic is ridiculous.

And that’s a good thing when it comes to testing autonomous cars, according to Cruise, the self-driving division of General Motors.

“The complexity is exponentially harder” on the dense city’s notoriously clogged streets, said Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt, who sold the San Francisco startup to General Motors last year for over half a billion dollars.

City traffic gives his robot cars a better workout as they handle situations like veering into oncoming traffic to pass double-parked cars, interacting with emergency vehicles and navigating construction zones.

“We think it’s absolutely necessary to accelerate the process toward releasing driverless vehicles,” Vogt said on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. “Encountering challenging situations at a higher rate gives more examples to work on when we’re back at headquarters writing software, so we can iterate at a faster rate. We are making rapid progress toward our goal of taking a driver out of the car.”

GM and Cruise last month unveiled a third-generation self-driving car, which they said could be mass produced at GM assembly plants. Cruise’s current robot cars, as well as those of rivals, are hand-built.

On Tuesday, Vogt threw a bit of shade on the competition, including Alphabet’s Waymo, which does much of its California testing near its Mountain View offices. Both Cruise and Waymo also test in Arizona.

“There is almost no comparison between driving in an urban environment and a suburban one,” Vogt said.

He highlighted some differences in a blog post. For every 1,000 miles of autonomous driving, cars in San Francisco had to deal with lane changes 772 times, versus 143 in Phoenix’s suburbs. They had to pass in the opposing lane 422 time in the city versus just 17 in the Phoenix area.

“Miles are not created equally,” Vogt said.

Cruise offers rides in its robot cars to employees via a ride-hailing app.

“It’s given us some valuable feedback,” Vogt said. “By having real people in the car, having direct feedback on what those rides feel like; we’ve been able to make some tweaks to our software to improve the experience.”

Cruise has far more robot cars in California than any other company, according to DMV records. It has 105 cars permitted for testing here, up from 47 just two months ago. Uber has 29; Waymo, 25; Tesla, 24; and Zoox, 11. The other 37 robot-car makers each have only single-digit numbers of vehicles on the road.

Challenging city traffic and more cars on the road also yield more fender benders. California requires autonomous vehicle makers to report all accidents. So far in 2017, Cruise has reported 12 accidents — all minor with no injuries — compared with three for Waymo/Google and one for Uber. No other companies reported accidents.

All the accidents this year were caused by the other vehicle, Cruise said.

Sometimes Cruise cars encountered situations that seemed like fodder for an episode of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

Last month, an apparently intoxicated cyclist wove his way down the wrong side of the street toward a stopped Cruise car, collided with its bumper and fell over, according to one accident report. He got to his feet, picked up his bike and deliberately hit it against the Cruise car, then pulled on one of the car’s sensors.

“Anyone who has visited San Francisco knows driving here is kind of ridiculous,” Vogt wrote. “Our vehicles must be assertive, nimble and sometimes a bit creative.”

©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.