IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

San Francisco Lawmakers Urge Collection of More AV Safety Data

In a letter, lawmakers urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to collect more data on autonomous vehicles, citing serious safety concerns about how they operate in real-world situations.

The Golden Gate Bridge with San Francisco behind it.
(TNS) — In a letter sent to the nation's top auto safety regulator, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Kevin Mullin (D-San Mateo) urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to collect more data on autonomous vehicles, citing "serious" safety concerns about how they operate in "real-world situations."

The letter cited recent problems with Waymo and Cruise robotaxis in San Francisco.

"As sophisticated as such software is becoming, AVs on the streets of San Francisco, which we both represent, have been having challenges in addressing complex real-world situations, such as navigating road work zones and reacting to the temporary outage of signals," Pelosi and Mullin said in the letter sent Tuesday. "When AVs malfunction, they frequently shut down in place, which has resulted in the vehicles obstructing public transit routes, blocking intersections and the normal flow of traffic, and preventing first responders from reaching people in need."

The lawmakers join San Francisco officials in expressing concerns about the expanded operations of robotaxis in the city. In August, less than a week after California regulators voted to approve Cruise and Waymo's unrestricted commercial expansion in San Francisco, City Attorney David Chui filed a motion asking the California Public Utilities Commission to temporarily suspend the approval pending a re-hearing.

"San Francisco will suffer serious harm if (Cruise and Waymo are) allowed expansion in the city with no limitations on geographic area, service hours and fleet size," the motions read. "It is foreseeable that driverless AV operations will significantly expand in the near term."

Robotaxis have been the topic of heated debate following multiple incidents in San Francisco that caused public uproar. A report written by San Francisco firefighters that was obtained by Forbes said two stalled driverless taxis blocked an ambulance carrying a critically injured patient, who died 20 to 30 minutes after arriving at the hospital on August 14. The report said the delay contributed to "poor patient outcome."

Following the incident, Cruise provided a video that disputed SFFD's account. The video, Forbes reported, shows that one Cruise car quickly left the scene while the other remained stalled at the intersection with an open lane to its right, which traffic was passing through. Forbes said it was not clear from the video if the ambulance could have navigated into the open lane.

According to Forbes, SFFD has had 74 incidents involving robotaxis, 52 of which were Cruise vehicles.

Also occurring in August was a collision between a driverless Cruise car and a fire truck that was en route to an emergency scene. Cruise officials said the driverless car had difficulty "charting" the path of the emergency vehicle, too, because the fire truck was traveling "in the oncoming lane of traffic, which it had moved into to bypass the red light," the company said. The passenger in the car was treated at the scene and taken to the hospitals with injuries Cruise described as "non-severe."

That same night, a driverless Cruise car carrying no passengers collided with another car at 26th and Mission Streets. The driver of the other car was treated and released at the scene and a police report was filed, Cruise said following the crash.

Following both crashes, the California Department of Motor Vehicles cut Cruise's San Francisco operations in half, pending an investigation into recent crashes. The company agreed it would not operate more than 50 driverless vehicles during the day and 150 driverless vehicles at night.

Pelosi and Mullin believe the NHTSA should take more action that would help make safety conclusions about autonomous vehicles.

"We believe the NHTSA should require (AV) companies to report incident information on a detailed and standardized basis so that the safety record of these vehicles is fully understood and so that companies may be evaluated relative to each other and held accountable," the lawmakers said.

Pelosi and Mullin suggested that the agency could require vehicle manufacturers to submit reports about vehicle retrieval events (when an operator has to manually assume control of a driverless vehicle to remove it from a scene), emergency response interference events and lane obstruction events.

"The improved collection of safety data would provide regulators at all levels of government with the clearer picture needed to further implement safeguards — and it could provide the public with more confidence in the safety of this new and important technology," the letter said.

The letter also urged the NHTSA to expand its Standing General Order, issued in June 2021 to require crashes involving autonomous vehicles to be reported, to "ask for information that would allow for regulators and the public to draw broader safety conclusions."

Entities named in the NHTSA's general order, which includes Waymo and Cruise, must report a crash if the system was in use within 30 seconds of the crash and if it caused property damage or injury. Data collected through August 15 showed that Cruise and Waymo have reported 97 and 165 crashes, respectively.

The data does not identify the location of the crashes, but according to each of their websites, both Cruise and Waymo maintain limited operations in San Francisco and Phoenix. Cruise also operates in Austin.

© 2023 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.