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Driverless car startup Cruise's no good, terrible year

Cruise rolled out hundreds of its robotaxis in San Francisco this year.
Justin Sullivan
/
Getty Images
Cruise rolled out hundreds of its robotaxis in San Francisco this year.

A year ago, the future seemed bright for the driverless car startup Cruise. As 2022 wrapped up, CEO Kyle Vogt took to Twitter to post about the company's autonomous vehicles rolling onto the streets of San Francisco, Austin and Phoenix.

"Folks," he wrote, "we are entering the golden years of AV expansion."

Robotaxis, which give rides to any paying customer with no driver at the wheel, were one of the latest tech products to be fully unleashed to the public this year. Dozens of companies, including Alphabet's Waymo and Amazon's Zoox, have been competing to be king. Cruise, which is owned by General Motors, was one of the fastest growing of those startups.

GM had poured billions into Cruise as the company emphasized scaling up at an unprecedented pace.

"We're on a trajectory that most businesses dream of, which is exponential growth," Vogt said during a July call with investors. He boasted about the size of Cruise's driverless car fleet, adding that "you will see several times this scale within the next six months."

By August, California had given Cruise permission to run around 300 robotaxis throughout San Francisco. (Waymo deploys around 100). And the company had started testing in several more cities across the country, including Dallas, Miami, Nashville and Charlotte.

But then, in October, things took a disastrous turn.

On the night of October 2, one of Cruise's driverless cars struck a pedestrian in San Francisco leaving her critically injured and fighting for her life. Her identity has not been released.

A cascade of events followed that ended with Vogt resigning and GM announcing it was pulling hundreds of millions in funding. Cruise is now facing government investigations, fines that could total millions and an uncertain future.

"They were the bull in a china shop. They just kept charging ahead," says Missy Cummings, a George Mason University professor who runs the Mason Autonomy and Robotics Center. "When we sat around and discussed who was going to have the worst accident in that crowd, everyone knew it was going to be Cruise."

Tension was building

Even before the October incident, tension over self-driving cars was simmering in San Francisco.

Both Cruise and Waymo say their driverless cars are safer than human drivers – they don't get drunk, text or fall asleep at the wheel. The companies say they've driven millions of driverless miles without any human fatalities and the roads are safer with their autonomous systems in charge.

But, as robotaxis became increasingly ubiquitous throughout San Francisco, residents complained about near collisions and blunders. Local reports showed footage of confused vehicles clogging a residential cul-de-sac, driving into wet cement at a construction site and regularly running red lights.

An activist group called Safe Street Rebel has been cataloging the incidents, which now clock in at more than 500. The group figured out that if they put orange traffic cones on the hoods of driverless cars, they would render the vehicles immobile. So, they started going out at night to "cone" as many cars as possible as a form of protest.

"When you start having passive aggressive protests like people putting orange cones on your cars, this isn't going to come out your way," says Cummings.

Protesters demonstrate against driverless cars in front of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in San Francisco in August.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Protesters demonstrate against driverless cars in front of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in San Francisco in August.

Cruise and Waymo also ran into problems with San Francisco's police and fire departments. At government hearings, the agencies testified that the driverless cars were a nuisance. They tallied nearly 75 incidents where self-driving cars got in the way of rescue operations, including driving through yellow emergency tape, blocking firehouse driveways, running over fire hoses and refusing to move for first responders.

"Our folks cannot be paying attention to an autonomous vehicle when we've got ladders to throw," San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson said in an August hearing.

Despite public angst over autonomous vehicles, California state regulators voted to allow the companies to expand their robotaxi services in August. That prompted the city of San Francisco to file motions with the state demanding a halt to the expansion.

Seven days after the vote, a Cruise car collided with a fire truck, injuring a passenger.

A pedestrian incident and an alleged cover-up

After the fire truck collision, the California Department of Motor Vehicles told Cruise to reduce its fleet in half, to 150 cars, while it investigated the incident.

Then, just weeks later, the Cruise car hit the pedestrian. Based on police reports and initial video footage from Cruise, the woman was first struck by a hit-and-run human driver whose vehicle threw her into the path of the driverless car.

Cruise said its car "braked aggressively to minimize the impact." It provided some news outlets with video of the incident, which ended right after the driverless car hit the woman. Cruise also gave footage to the DMV.

Over the next few weeks, Cruise continued to expand – launching driverless robotaxi rides in Houston. Then, in a surprise announcement at the end of October, the DMV ordered Cruise to immediately stop all operations in California.

The DMV says Cruise withheld footage from the night of the incident.

The facts stated in the DMV's order of suspension for Cruise.
/ California Department of Motor Vehicles
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California Department of Motor Vehicles
The facts stated in the DMV's order of suspension for Cruise.

The new video footage showed the Cruise car striking the pedestrian, running her over, and then dragging her an additional 20 feet at 7 miles per hour as it pulls to the curb and stops on top of her.

Philip Koopman, a Carnegie Mellon associate professor and autonomous vehicle safety expert, says most human drivers wouldn't respond this way. "Before you move your car, you're going to find out where the pedestrian is," Koopman says. "The last thing you want to do is be driving over them, but that's exactly what the Cruise vehicle did."

Cruise says it gave regulators the entire video immediately after the incident. But the DMV says it was only after requesting the footage that Cruise handed it over – 10 days later.

It quickly snowballed for Cruise after that. The company recalled and grounded all of its cars nationwide – nearly 1,000 vehicles. It initiated a third-party safety review of its robotaxis and hired an outside law firm to examine its response to the pedestrian incident. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also opened an investigation into Cruise.

Meanwhile, The Intercept reported that Cruise cars had difficulty detecting children, according to internal documents. And The New York Times reported that remote human workers had to intervene to control Cruise's driverless vehicles every 2.5 to five miles.

By mid-November, Vogt was gone. Nearly a dozen other executives stepped down and Cruise announced it was laying off nearly a quarter of its staff.

Ripple effect across the industry

Cruise will continue its work on driverless cars as a commercial product, says spokesperson Navideh Forghani. She added that the company's approach is "with safety as our north star." GM's spokesperson says it remains committed to Cruise "as they refocus on trust, accountability and transparency."

Waymo has avoided much of the public ire that built up over the summer. Its spokesperson told NPR that "safety is our mission and top priority" and that "we treat every event seriously by investigating it to understand what happened."

But Cruise's controversy still affects the self-driving industry overall, says Carnegie Mellon's Koopman.

"The whole industry, with one voice, has been promoting the same talking points as Cruise," Koopman says. "So, if one of them is discredited, it discredits the entire industry because they're all using the same playbook."

A lot of that is the claim of driverless cars being superhuman when it comes to safety, he says.

Both Cruise and Waymo have released studies saying their vehicles are involved in fewer crashes than human drivers. One Waymo study says it has an 85% reduction in injury-causing collisions and a Cruise study says it has a 74% reduction. Neither company has released the raw data of these reports.

Koopman says the safety narrative can unravel when people see the driverless cars on city streets making the same mistakes as human drivers. He says he'd like to see the companies focus on making sure the technology is actually safe.

"To be clear, human drivers will text, they'll be distracted. There's the saying, 'the lights are on, but nobody's home,'" Koopman says. "But it turns out, that happens to robotaxis too."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.