GM’s Autonomous Car Gets Confused, Stops for Lunch

While test driving GM's latest autonomous vehicles, some passengers found themselves stuck in traffic.

General Motors, in a collaboration with its driverless car startup Cruise, sent its Chevrolet Bolt on a series of media-only preview test drives Tuesday, but the urban environment it traversed may have been a bit overwhelming for the car. According to Reuters, the dense streets of downtown San Francisco proved to be too challenging for the vehicle to complete on its own.

The autonomous chariot reportedly experienced problems understanding how to navigate double-parked vehicles and orange traffic cones, something which isn’t an uncommon find in an urban environment. At one point, the vehicle stopped behind a taco truck, unsure of what to do next. Eventually, the human operator had to take control and navigate around the truck as the Bolt had seemingly been unable to figure out what to do next. As self-driving cars become increasingly more sophisticated and move up the chain of autonomous driving levels, they will need to be able to overcome more difficult tasks such as navigating environments which the Bolt had difficulties in completing by itself.

In a 2016 deal, GM purchased Cruise for more than $1 billion, a small fee for the potential fortune the manufacturer could potentially rake in by being on the forefront of self-driving autonomy. Its plan was to develop a fleet for dense urban environments such as New York City but quickly learned that cities were much more difficult to navigate than less populated areas which competitors like Waymo were already testing. Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt mentioned that driving through urban areas like San Francisco is up to 46 times more complicated than a suburban environment.

During its 15 minute ride, the autonomous car slowly drove more than 2.2 miles of pavement in an area of San Francisco that could be described as “busy”. It encountered 129 cars, four bicycles, and 117 pedestrians, all of which it navigated without incident (despite being perplexed by the lunch truck). The vehicle crept along at less than 20 mph throughout the course of the route, proving to be much more conservative than if a human were behind the wheel.

Similar to the Reuters experience, the folks from Wired were also invited to take a ride in the Bolt. They reported similar experiences but praised the vehicle for not striking two pedestrians and two cyclists who were careless enough to pose a danger to themselves and the vehicle by darting in front of it. The vehicle often jerked to a stop if it even so much as smelled a potential accident, claimed the rider, being ultra-cautious so that it could successfully navigate the bustling environment without incident.

Overall, though the vehicle drove in a manner which some might consider being overly-cautious, the trips seemed to be safe. In an environment where pedestrians often jaywalk, cars disobey traffic laws, and a large number of cyclists share the road with two-ton metal boxes, Cruise’s cars must learn to play it safe and expected the unexpected. Vogt reportedly acknowledged some issues with the vehicles and mentioned that the company would be working to rectify them by the time it was ready for a large-scale launch.

With little regulation currently in place for self-driving, GM is taking a step back and making sure its approach is conservative, something which one day may save a life on its quest to commercially scale its autonomous operations. Until then, GM will continue to improve its vehicles to get a leg-up on emerging competitors in the urban sector.