Cruise’s Self-Driving Car Drags Pedestrian Nearly 20 Feet After Collision in San Francisco
On October 2nd, 2023 one of Cruise’s self-driving cars was involved in an accident in downtown San Francisco that left a pedestrian hospitalized. The vehicle collided with two pedestrians crossing the street in a crosswalk, knocking both to the ground. While one pedestrian was able to get up and move to safety, the other became trapped underneath the Cruise vehicle which then proceeded to drive itself nearly 20 feet down the street, dragging the trapped victim along with it before finally coming to a stop.
Video footage of the graphic incident quickly went viral online, raising serious questions about the safety and reliability of Cruise’s autonomous vehicle technology.
|Aftermath of the Cruise self-driving car accident that injured a pedestrian in San Francisco (Getty Images)
The victim was hospitalized with serious injuries according to a police report. Cruise confirmed the incident and promised to cooperate fully with investigating authorities while also conducting an internal probe. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and California regulators quickly launched formal investigations into the troubling crash.
New Reports Reveal Disturbing Details About Cruise’s Handling of the Incident
This week saw several major developments in the ongoing investigations into Cruise and the October pedestrian dragging.
On January 25th, 2024 Cruise released the findings of an independent review it commissioned from law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher as well as an internal accident report. That same day Cruise also confirmed in a blog post that both the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have opened investigations into the company specifically focused on “…the reporting and disclosure process related to the October 2022 traffic accident…”.
The independent review of Cruise’s accident response painted a concerning picture of failures in leadership, training, and internal transparency. Key findings from the report include:
- Cruise’s post-accident public statements were “misleading” for failing to disclose that their vehicle’s systems had indeed made serious errors
- The investigation into the root technical causes was “rushed” and key evidence “overwritten” before it could be properly analyzed
- There was “insufficient rigor, transparency and accountability” in Cruise’s review process and communication with regulators
- Cruise displayed “an unwillingness to accept responsibility” and leaders fostered a troubling culture overly focused on speed to market over safety
Cruise’s own newly released internal accident report confirmed that there were two main automation failures that combined to cause their vehicle to keep driving after knocking the pedestrian down:
- A perception error prevented the self-driving system from properly classifying the victim as a person after impact
- Improper tuning of emergency braking parameters allowed it to override the system’s stop request
The troubling cascade of technological and organizational issues uncovered led California regulators to suspend Cruise from testing self-driving cars without human safety drivers on public roads. Experts warn the investigations into Cruise’s safety culture and lack of transparency could derail or substantially delay the deployment timeline for their commercial driverless taxi service.
Fallout from Cruise Investigation Ripples Through GM and the Self-Driving Industry
As Cruise’s majority shareholder, the widening probes present serious reputational and financial risks for automotive giant General Motors which had been banking on the company’s robotaxi technology as a key pillar of its future business.
GM CEO Mary Barra has staked much of her tenure on the promise of creating an integrated transportation ecosystem powered by autonomous vehicles. But Cruise’s self-driving car safety now being called into question along with Barra and other GM leaders’ oversight of the startup threatens to unravel those ambitions.
The emerging narrative from investigative findings of systemic organizational dysfunction around transparency, accountability, and technological rigor contrasts awkwardly with Barra’s typical message touting Cruise and GM’s safety-first commitment to gradual responsible deployment. It also opens the door for increased criticism and skepticism of the self-driving industry as a whole if regulators determine Cruise’s failings reflect more widespread issues related to premature commercialization.
While Cruise so far remains an extreme outlier when it comes to real-world safety incidents, experts say the increased scrutiny from bloody public accidents compromises efforts by other AV developers to build public trust and progress toward mainstream adoption of the technology.
What Happens Next in the Investigations Over Cruise’s Pedestrian Dragging Disaster?
With federal criminal and regulatory investigations just getting underway, Cruise and its corporate parent GM face extended uncertainty and consequences over the coming months and years related to the disastrous October crash.
Both the DOJ and SEC probes involve assessing if Cruise or GM executives intentionally misled regulators, shareholders, or the public in their communications after the pedestrian dragging incident which could lead to criminal charges or harsh civil penalties. The SEC is specifically examining whether there were violations around financial disclosures and reporting requirements.
Based on previous high-profile cases, complex investigations of this nature can take years to resolve. AV safety advocacy groups have urged the DOJ and SEC to thoroughly investigate the culture and transparency issues uncovered and said stiff punishments may be warranted if intentional deception or prioritizing commercial speed over public safety is proven.
For now, Cruise remains locked out of driverless testing on California streets depriving the company of critical real-world operational data. Before regulators grant approval to resume testing without backup drivers, they will likely require Cruise to implement updated systems, protocols, employee training programs, and corporate governance reforms aimed at addressing the troubling safety culture issues raised in the accident reports.
Most experts think Cruise’s plans to launch a commercial robotaxi service in 2024 are now all but certainly postponed indefinitely pending the outcome of the ongoing investigations. Approval for the driverless taxi service is contingent on regulators signing off on Cruise’s safety record and technical capabilities – difficult to envisage before the pedestrian dragging incident is resolved.
GM faces thorny questions over the level of autonomy to grant Cruise going forward and whether executive leadership changes are warranted. There will also likely be increased pressure from GM shareholders concerned over the financial viability of its AV business which has required over $10 billion in investments from the automaker without yet proving a credible path to profitability.
While the final chapter remains unwritten, the disturbing initial findings from probes into Cruise’s calamitous system and process breakdowns around a bloody pedestrian collision seem certain to alter the road ahead for GM’s ambitious self-driving car dreams.
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