Home » Why Do Autonomous Cars Keep Shutting Down On This One San Francisco Street?

Why Do Autonomous Cars Keep Shutting Down On This One San Francisco Street?

Cruse Intersectin Stall

Remember this past summer when a shocking number – some sources say up to 20 – of Cruise self-driving cars converged on one San Francisco intersection and blocked traffic for about two hours? That was bonkers. It seems that has happened again, a few nights ago, this time with only six cars, which is still plenty to block traffic with — but this time the unexpected and arcane Gathering of the Driving Robots only lasted 20 minutes. Still, it’s an ass-pain, but it’s an interesting sort of ass-pain, and one that may suggest issues we’ll be encountering in the future. Also, the location of the most recent one shares a street with the July incident, and is pretty close by. What’s going on?

For some background: Cruise operates a fleet of Level 4 automated Chevy Bolts in San Francisco (as well as Austin and Phoenix) for people to get rides in, between the hours of 10 pm to 5:30 am. The vehicles are driverless, and operate only within a specific area of the city, hence the Level 4 designation, which specifies a restricted operational driving domain (ODD). All of the vehicles involved here were part of this program.

Here’s a tweet with some video of the six-Cruise-car gathering at the intersection:

There’s also video of when one of the cars eventually decided it was time to head out, for artificial intelligence reasons we can only guess at:

Cruise did issue a statement in response to the tweets of the event, suggesting that just one of the cars had a technical issue, though that doesn’t really explain why the other five were stuck, too:

Now, what’s also interesting is where this all happened. The 20-car cluster that happened in early July occurred at the intersection of Fulton and Gough streets. This recent six-car loiterfest happened at the intersection of Hayes and Gough streets, which I found by looking up the address of Absinthe there in the background of the tweeted video:

Location

So, what’s these cars problem with Gough Street? Or maybe this neighborhood? The two gatherings happened within two blocks of each other, on the same street. Is there some secret computer buried underground in the, as the Absinthe website says, “charming Hayes Valley neighborhood” that is calling her mobile children to her, to receive secret orders? Probably not, but maybe!

The ODD (again, Operational Driving Domain, basically the working area of the cars) Cruise uses is pretty large, covering a lot of the northern part of the city:

Cruisesfodd

…and that map is very zoomed out and simplified; there’s a massive number of streets in that area, and only the major ones are shown in that map. I point this out because it seems too big an area for these two incidents to be just chance, that close together, right?

Cruise hasn’t come forth with a specific explanation about what happened, and based on past behavior, I would not counsel any breath-holding until they do. What is interesting to realize, though, is that autonomous vehicles aren’t like human drivers in that they operate on a common set of rules and logic (well, common for their specific programming) so if something causes one to be confused or fail, it could become a mass event and cascade of failures, because they’re all working with the same tools, interacting with the same inputs.

Over-the-air software updates could both be the sort of thing that fixes these incidents, and potentially causes them. If thousands and thousands of cars get an update with a bug, then thousands and thousands of cars could potentially suffer the same failures, at the same time. It’s even possible in the same place. We just don’t know all the possibilities yet, but we do know very well that commercial software can definitely have bugs and that computer that drive cars are not like independent humans, capable of creative thought.

I’ve reached out to Cruise to see if they’re willing to provide any more detail, and will update if they do.

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(Topshot by Sally Torchinsky)

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24 Responses

  1. Remember that episode of Star Trek TNG when Picard could have wiped out the Borg with some sort of circular logic ‘virus’? I wonder what could happen to a fleet of autonomous cars…

  2. I was stopped by traffic
    Driving down the street
    I was struck by no one in the driver’s seat
    It’s an AV party
    Who could ask for more?
    Everybody’s coming, leave your driver at the door

    (With apologies to Danny Elfman…)

  3. Ex SF resident here, my take on what’s happening, based entirely wild speculation, is that they are bumping up against the geographic boundaries of their ODD. Both locations are in the “Limited Access” area and are very close to the grey area, which I assume is some sort of “No Go” area; also turning on to Gough can be a shit show even when you’re not a confused AI robot car.

  4. When I was a child watching The Jetsons I never imagined that one day we would actually be victimized by passive aggressive robots in a pissy mood. The revenge of Uniblab.

  5. Well, there’s a lot of techies in SF, so there’s always the outside possibility that this is someone with, I dunno, a targeted radio jammer or something, just messing with the cars as they come past for funsies.

  6. “This is Chopper 4 with your morning traffic. It appears that the intersection of First and Main is no longer compatible with Chevies after last night’s software update, and Bolts are blocking the intersection. Manually re-route if necessary. The roundabout at Oak and Fisher is still confusing Fords, so leave that intersection blacklisted if it’s on your way in. Finally, it looks like yesterday’s ticker tape parade confetti is confusing most makes in the downtown area, so plan extra travel time regardless of what your car is planning for.”

  7. a few years ago a F1 (Mark Weber’s RedBull IIRC) stopped at singapore cuz electric train passed under track at exact wrong moment and EMI tanked car’s electronics… but i doubt EMI as a cause here.
    how about bad map detail in ODD?

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