Cruise, the self-driving subsidiary of General Motors, has brought some of its autonomous vehicles out of their coronavirus-imposed dormancy to make deliveries for a pair of food banks in San Francisco, the company announced today.
Cruise’s deliveries have only taken place over eight days, though the company says it is interested in scaling up in the near future. The company says the city of San Francisco is “aware of what we’re doing and supports the effort.” (A spokesperson for Mayor London Breed’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
The food banks were enthusiastic in their praise for Cruise. Lenore Estrada, executive director of the SF New Deal, said Cruise’s deliveries have helped free up her organization’s volunteers to do other work, like bringing personal protective equipment to partner sites and restaurants and seeking out more sources of funding. “The support Cruise has provided has been crucial in allowing us to expand our services,” Estrada said in a statement provided by Cruise.
The company is the latest AV operator to discover that doing deliveries can help sidestep restrictions that would otherwise require them to keep their autonomous vehicles on ice. Cruise, along with the rest of California’s AV companies, paused on-road testing in mid-March after the city issued a “shelter-in-place” order banning all nonessential travel. But since then, a handful of companies have taken some tentative steps to resume testing. Last week, robot delivery startup Nuro announced that it was helping deliver medical supplies to two Bay Area field hospitals.
But there’s a big difference between what Nuro is doing and what Cruise is doing. Nuro’s deliveries are being conducted on private roads with fully driverless vehicles that don’t require human backup drivers. Cruise is operating on public roads and is continuing to require that two safety drivers ride in each vehicle at all times.
Obviously, requiring two workers to ride side by side in a small vehicle would conflict with official social distancing guidelines that advise people to stay at least six feet apart from one another. Cruise says its delivery program is entirely voluntary, with backup drivers free to opt out at any time.
These workers, who are third-party contractors employed by a staffing firm called Aerotek, are supplied with personal protective equipment like masks and gloves, Cruise says. And each backup driver is paired “exclusively” with another worker and vehicle, meaning they theoretically won’t come in contact with anyone else or another vehicle during the duration of the delivery program.
Initially, backup drivers at some AV companies complained about inadequate safety measures in place to protect them from contracting the virus. The pandemic has made it an extremely precarious time for self-driving car companies, especially those firms that have been unable to secure enough funding to sustain their operations through an extended shutdown.
Some, like Cruise and Nuro, are exploring how to get designated as an “essential business” so they can continue to operate during the shutdown. But several AV backup drivers have told The Verge they would be extremely reticent to go back to work without rigid social distancing guidelines in place.