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Robotaxis driving on the street

Dormant robotaxis are snarling traffic on the streets of San Francisco.

What’s new: Cruise self-driving cabs lately have stalled en masse, Wired reported.

What's happened: Vehicles from Cruise, a subsidiary of automotive giant General Motors, lost contact with the company’s servers at least four times since May. The outages leave the cars, which don’t carry human safety drivers, unable to move for substantial periods of time.

  • On June 28, nearly 60 Cruise vehicles lost contact with company servers for 90 minutes. At least a dozen vehicles stalled in a single intersection, blocking lanes and crosswalks. The holdup blocked a street-sweeping vehicle, which is punishable by a fine. Cruise employees were unable to steer the vehicles remotely and had to drive them manually to their depot.
  • On May 18, the company lost touch with the entire fleet for 20 minutes. Employees were unable to control the vehicles remotely or contact passengers.
  • Similar incidents were captured by Twitter users on June 24 and June 21.

Behind the news: On June 2, Cruise acquired the first-ever permit to collect robotaxi fares in San Francisco. The permit allows 30 vehicles to operate between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. They’re authorized to drive up to 30 miles per hour in clear weather.

Why it matters: Rolling out self-driving cars has proven to be more difficult than many technologists realized. Cruise has made great progress with its taxi program, reducing the hazard of autonomous vehicles in motion sufficiently to gain a permit to operate on public roads. But centralized control brings its own hazards — and a fat target for hackers and saboteurs.

We’re thinking: Why do self-driving cars need internet access to drive? Many autonomous systems actually rely on remote humans to monitor and help them operate safely. A failsafe for loss of contact with remote servers is in order, but this is very challenging with today’s technology.

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