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Robotaxis have a passenger problem that no one thought of

An issue with self-driving cars that apparently no one previously considered has come to light: dozing passengers.

Officials in San Francisco, where Alphabet’s Waymo company and GM-backed Cruise are currently operating robotaxi services as part of ongoing trials, highlighted the problem in a recent letter to the regulator, Wired reported.

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Signed by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, and the Mayor’s Office on Disability, the letter to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) explained that in the last couple of months alone, there have been three incidents where Cruise staff were compelled to call 911 after a rider in one of its driverless vehicles failed to respond to their calls via the two-way voice link inside the vehicle.

When police and firefighters arrived on the scene, they found nothing more than a dozing passenger enjoying — apparently rather too much — the comforts of a driverless ride.

The story may sound amusing at first, but as the agencies pointed out in their letter to the regulator, such episodes squander not only public money, but also divert important resources away from others who may genuinely require assistance.

The letter is part of a broader effort by the agencies calling on the CPUC regulator to slow the expansion of robotaxi pilot tests in San Francisco until the technology is better prepared, NBC reported.

Besides the issue of snoozing passengers, the letter also cited incidents in the past year where autonomous cars have been causing problems on the roads.

They include one where five Cruise vehicles blocked a city street, preventing a passenger bus from getting through, and causing a delay to the service. The incident was reminiscent of another one that occurred in June last year.

The company’s vehicles have also caused problems with the work of firefighters, for example, driving over hoses as they tried to perform their duties.

There was also the bizarre happening where San Francisco cops took time to work out how to deal with an empty autonomous car that had apparently committed a traffic violation. As officers stood around discussing what to do, the car drove off before parking a short distance away.

Another letter from the same agencies noted that “the large majority” of the reported unplanned vehicle stops involved Cruise cars rather than Waymo ones, but said the low rate of complaints regarding Waymo vehicles “may reflect only a lower volume of Waymo driverless vehicle miles traveled rather than superior Waymo performance — or could reflect both vehicle miles traveled and performance differences.”

The agencies said they are happy for Waymo and Cruise to continue testing their driverless vehicles, but that expansion of such activities should be done at a careful pace and with special conditions to create “the best path toward public confidence in driving automation and industry success in San Francisco and beyond.”

Cruise gained a permit in June last year to use 30 vehicles as robotaxis — sans backup drivers — in designated parts of San Francisco between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The company more recently received permission to test driverless cars around the clock, though it still needs final approval from the CPUC. A short while later, in November, Waymo also received a permit to offer fully driverless rides to passengers, though, unlike Cruise, Waymo is currently not permitted to charge for such rides.

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