GM Unit’s self-driving taxis are the subject of a US safety investigation

The main federal agency for auto safety announced on Friday that it has launched a preliminary investigation into cars that a division of General Motors in San Francisco has tested as driverless taxis.

The agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in a filing posted on its website that it had received reports that autonomous taxis operated by GM’s Cruise division had become immobilized on roads, creating obstacles for other vehicles would have created. The agency also said GM reported three incidents in which Cruise vehicles suddenly slowed and were hit from behind.

The agency said its Office of Defects Investigation will attempt to determine the scope and severity of the two types of incidents.

Regulators are increasingly scrutinizing autonomous and semi-autonomous cars and the claims automakers have made about them. The most well-known investigation by the Auto Safety Agency in this area concerns Tesla’s self-driving technology. Regulators are investigating at least 14 accidents involving Tesla cars running on autopilot that have killed 19 people.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported in Cruise cars, but the Auto Safety Agency said the vehicles could potentially endanger people. When cruise taxis stop unexpectedly, “they can trap vehicle occupants in unsafe places like lanes or intersections, becoming an unexpected obstacle for other road users,” the agency said in its filing. “These immobilisations can increase the risk for disembarking passengers. In addition, immobilisation may cause other road users to perform abrupt or unsafe maneuvers to avoid colliding with the immobilized cruise vehicle.”

The investigation includes 242 vehicles and is the first step before the agency could force GM to recall vehicles.

This year, Cruise began offering autonomous taxi rides in parts of San Francisco and during off-peak hours.

The company’s cars have “driven nearly 700,000 fully autonomous miles in an extremely complex urban environment without life-threatening injuries or fatalities,” a Cruise spokesman, Drew Pusateri, said in a statement. “There’s always a balance between healthy regulatory oversight and the innovation we desperately need to save lives, which is why we will continue to work fully with the NHTSA or any other regulator to achieve this common goal,” he added .

Cruise was recently cleared to extend service to the city’s downtown area and operate 24 hours a day. The division is preparing to expand its operations to Austin, Texas and Phoenix.

GM and other auto and tech companies have spent trillions of dollars developing autonomous driving systems in hopes of providing taxi rides, deliveries, and transportation services to consumers and other businesses. Waymo, owned by Google’s parent company, has been working on the technology for more than a decade, offering driverless taxis in and around Phoenix. The company said Friday it had begun offering driverless taxi rides in San Francisco after receiving approval from California regulators.

In a one-day investor presentation last month, Paul Jacobson, GM’s chief financial officer, said the company believes Cruise could become a $50 billion business by 2030. “Cruise is an integral part of that and it’s expanding to other cities,” he said. “They’re making really good progress.”

But progress has been much slower than initially expected, and some auto companies and investors have become wary of pouring more money into the technology because it may not generate significant sales or profits for years to come. In October, Ford Motor and Volkswagen announced they were shutting down Argo AI, the autonomous car company they had invested in.

Cade Metz contributed reporting.

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