In the long list of business operations now allowed in San Francisco, autonomous-vehicle testing isn't included. But Cruise, a self-driving car service headquartered in SOMA, is using their cars for an essential service — food delivery — to sidestep current shelter-in-place restrictions.
In the years since self-driving vehicles hit SF's streets, they’ve been the butt of countless jokes, at times traversing the city sans DMV permission — and running red lights all the while. But when the city began sheltering in place in March, autonomous car testing was deemed an unnecessary business operation. However, Cruise began deploying their vehicles in late-April to help two local food banks, SF-Marin Food Bank and the SF New Deal, deliver some 3,700 meals, allowing them to operate under the City’s current shelter-in-place parameters.
Drivers for the autonomous vehicle company have now come out to say their employer might be in violation of SF's stay-at-home order.
On March 16th, we suspended on-road testing in San Francisco following guidance by Mayor London Breed & public health officials.— cruise (@Cruise) May 26, 2020
VP of Simulation Tom Boyd shares how we continue making rapid progress on AV development using complex simulation frameworks. https://t.co/hX2vNGMEO0 pic.twitter.com/8dAsdCpCTB
Cruise employees told the tech news website The Verge they volunteered to go back to work delivering meals as autonomous vehicle test operators (AVTOs) for a few days in April and May. The caveat? Not much time was actually spent conducting that essential service; one employee reported they did only a single food delivery over the course of three days.
“[The] majority of my time there was just autonomous miles,” the AVTO said. Another told The Verge that just one of the company’s locations in SF was deploying vehicles for food delivery — and the rest were “doing MA [mileage accumulation],” Cruise’s normal process of driving around in an autonomous mode collecting data.
Employees who’ve come out to hold Cruise accountable for their actions — on social media, in interviews with media outlets — say they aren't upset with the work, though they feel as if Cruise is unfairly leveraging the loophole to collect data instead of using all of the company’s available resources to feed in-need San Franciscans.
“I believe that it does violate the city’s stay at home order because it’s more than deliveries being done,” a Cruise AVTO lamented to Andrew J. Hawkins of The Verge. “It’s the only way for Cruise to operate during essential business hours. If you ask me, it’s pretty obvious.”
Cruise has also recently come under fire for adding unneeded vehicles on roads during SF’s shelter in place order. The company has said the vast majority of their Chevy Bolts — the GM-made electric car model, capable of driving over 250 miles on a single charge, which makes up the majority of their fleets — were conducting food deliveries, but did admit some were hitting the pavement to map and gather data.
Autonomous vehicle testing is still prohibited under the city’s shelter-in-place order, which means Cruise’s conduct is punishable by a misdemeanor, fine — or even jail. Though, it’s unclear as to how those punishments would be enforced: would ATVOs be responsible, or the management bodies that deployed them? What if said ATVO was conducting both a food delivery and MA service the same day? Etc.
Both the SF-Marin Food Bank and SF New Deal have volunteer programs that allow people to use their cars to help deliver food across the city, though the latter organization is actively seeking out people to help put their non-autonomous wheels to good use.
Image: Wikimedia Commons