Driverless ride hailing company faces second federal investigation days after Houston launch

The investigation launched Monday refers to two specific reports of the autonomous vehicles causing injury to pedestrians.

Cruise, a California-based subsidiary of General Motors, plans to launch a driverless ride-hailing service in Houston in 2023.
Cruise, a California-based subsidiary of General Motors, plans to launch a driverless ride-hailing service in Houston in 2023.

Days after their release onto the streets of Houston, Cruise’s driverless cars are being investigated for potential safety defects by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation, for a second time.

The investigation led by the administration asserts the Office of Defects Investigation received reports of incidents involving the autonomous vehicles that “may not have exercised appropriate caution around pedestrians in the roadway.” Nearly 600 of the driverless vehicles are subjects in the preliminary investigation that could result in a recall by the administration.

The company this year tested its vehicles in several Houston neighborhoods and fully launched the driverless ride-hailing service last Thursday despite some backlash from Houston residents about a traffic jam caused by some of those vehicles on a busy Montrose roadway weeks ago.

The investigation launched on Monday refers to two specific reports involving pedestrians sustaining injuries caused by the vehicles and two similar incidents involving videos posted online.

The Office of Defects Investigation is opening the evaluation to determine the scope and severity of those reports, including causal factors that relate to automated driving system policies and performance around pedestrians, according to the administration.

The investigation is one of two that the administration is currently conducting into the autonomous ridesharing company. The other open investigation was launched in December last year after the administration received notices the vehicles “may engage in inappropriately hard braking or become immobilized while operating in the specified Operational Design Domain,” which is a set of operating conditions for systems often used in autonomous vehicles.

In that investigation, the administration referred to three incidents of the driverless cars hard braking in response to other drivers approaching the rear of the cars. In each of those incidents, the other drivers struck the rear of the vehicles that were boarded by supervisors.

Last week, Houston became the fourth city in the country, behind Austin, San Francisco and Phoenix, to launch the driverless ride-hailing service in downtown, east downtown, Midtown, Montrose, Hyde Park and River Oaks neighborhoods across the city. Cruise is currently testing its vehicles in 10 other metropolitans in the U.S.

Cruise recalled its fleet of vehicles earlier this year for a software update in late March after one rear-ended a city bus in San Francisco. The crash caused no injuries and the autonomous car was traveling about 10 mph at the time, according to Cruise.

Notably, the city will have a tough time regulating autonomous cars after a senate bill that prohibits cities in Texas from regulating driverless vehicles was written into law in 2017.