Self-driving cars automatically stop, block intersections after thunderstorm turns all lights red

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Traffic stopped by thunderstorm by is licensed under
HOUSTON, TX - Videos and photos flooded social media showing the moments when self-driving cars came to a complete stop, blocking an intersection in the Montrose neighborhood. 

According to FOX 26, a thunderstorm turned all the traffic lights red. Matthew Seedorff posted on X:

"JUST IN: New pictures of self-driving cars blocking a Houston intersection Monday. A viewer says 3 of the 4 directions of travel were blocked. This happened after a thunderstorm knocked out power ... all the traffic lights were stuff on red. #SelfDriving #texas."

The incident occurred at the Montrose and Hawthorne intersection after a round of thunderstorms passed through the area late in the evening on Monday, September 25th. The self-driving cars automatically stopped and blocked the majority of the traffic lanes. Sharing what he saw, Alexander Spike said:

"Three Cruise autonomous vehicles (AV) with no drivers were stopped at Hawthorne and Montrose. The vehicles did not understand that it had become a four-way stop. [They] were waiting for the lights to turn green."

He added:

"[Traffic] was backed up. It took about 15 minutes to clear up. METRO had two or three buses backed up because of the trouble."

The photos he shared with FOX 26 clearly show that the lights are all red and the self-driving cars were stopped at the intersection. Spike said:

"This is a safety issue first and foremost. If an AV can't figure out what's going on and its context, how confident should I be that it will recognize me on foot or bicycle, and treat me as I'm expected [as a pedestrian]."

FOX 26 reached out to Cruise and a spokesperson from the company said that their vehicles are programmed to be cautious when driving in complex situations. The Cruise spokesperson said:

"Our vehicles were stopped at an intersection where the lights were not cycling and showed all red. While some vehicles took a little time to safely navigate the intersection, all vehicles were able to clear the intersection autonomously. Safety is embedded in everything we do, and our vehicles are designed to adhere to traffic signals and follow rules of the road."

However, after three cars had finally moved away from the intersection, another one stopped and had a similar issue. Simon Newton shared what he saw:

"A new one had stopped on the other side of the street. All the lights were solid red. There were Houston police officers directing traffic with flashlights. The Cruise vehicle was just fully stopped."

He said that a police officer approached the self-driving car to see if it would move. That order did not work. Newton added:

"The officer shined its light at it and was tapping on the window, trying to get a response. It's good the vehicle stopped for the solid red in all directions, but they obviously have trouble understanding a police officer, or traffic directions. So, there were other vehicles pulling up behind it, not knowing it was permanently stopped."

Luckily, at the time the incident happened, traffic was not too bad. However, Newton said that he wonders what would happen if this incident took place during other stressful situations with more traffic. He added:

"There is a place for this technology. [However], I do have concerns that private companies are testing technology in the streets that may not be up to scratch yet. It seems like they need to improve their software, or sensors, to really be up to scratch with regular people drivers."

The self-driving cars reportedly err on the side of caution. The Cruise spokesperson said in a statement:

"The overwhelmingly majority of the time, our cars can proceed autonomously even though some may do so after a brief delay. [In addition], our technology is designed to track all objects, and road users, and will maneuver in the safest way possible. Safety is our chief mission - not only for our passengers but for everyone we share the road with."
 
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