Robotaxi or Cruise Missile? GM Has an Image Problem

GM’s autonomous vehicles are driven out of town. It was a PR disaster.

A Cruise autonomous vehicle on the streets of San Francisco in 2019 is under the watchful eye of a human in the driver’s seat. In 2020, Cruise vehicles were allowed to operate without anyone in the driver’s seat. Stock photo

A Cruise autonomous vehicle on the streets of San Francisco in 2019 is under the watchful eye of a human in the driver’s seat. In 2020, Cruise vehicles were allowed to operate without anyone in the driver’s seat. Stock photo

The new head of General Motors’ Cruise autonomous vehicle (AV) unit, Mo Elshenawy, acknowledged in an all-hands meeting on December 5 that Cruise had hit an “all-time low” and promised to restore trust with regulators and the public after all U.S. robotaxis were removed from service.

Elshenawy was installed as Cruise president last month after its founder, Kyle Vogt, stepped down.

Cruise was told to stop operating its self driving robotaxis after a

Cruise vehicle struck and dragged a pedestrian
20 feet in San Francisco on October 2. Cruise explanation,

It was the pedestrian that hit their vehicle after being hit by another vehicle. And unlike the
driver of the vehicle, which fled the scene, the Cruise pulled over as it should. And besides, pedestrians get hit by human-driven vehicles
all the time. Yet, it is Cruise that is under federal investigation. How fair is that?

Indeed, the pedestrian struck by the two vehicles on October 2 wouldn’t have made the news if both vehicles had drivers. It appears as if the public has
adopted a a zero-tolerance policy on self-driving vehicles.

“We now know that we need to be significantly better than human performance and significantly better across a much wider spectrum of use cases and edge cases,” he said, according a transcript of the meeting obtained by Reuters.

Although Elshenawy appears to be blaming technology, Cruise’s failure in San Francisco may be as much, if not more, an image problem. Even though Waymo’s vehicles were involved in more incidents than Cruise (35 more crashes since the beginning of 2022, according to The San Francisco Standard, which used California DMV data), Waymo managed to avoid being tarnished the way Cruise was.

Image Problem

You might be wondering how Waymo got away with it. Let’s start with the vehicles. Waymo’s choice of vehicle is a decidedly luxurious Jaguar I-PACE SUV. Cruise chose to use an econobox, the Chevy Bolt. Which of those would a self-respecting, image-conscious techie, of which the city is full, want to get picked up in?

Kyle Vogt, founder of Cruise Automation when he was CEO. Image: LinkedIn.

Kyle Vogt, founder of Cruise Automation when he was CEO. Image: LinkedIn.

Cruise Automation was a Silicon Valley startup. Its founder, Kyle Vogt, spent 4 years at MIT, which should have been enough to get a bachelor’s in electrical engineering or computer science, his declared majors, but a Your Tech Story article has him dropping out of MIT to join the startups and Twitch. After Twitch was acquired (for $970 million), Vogt founded Cruise Automation. Cruise may have lost quite a bit of its Silicon Valley cachet after its acquisition (for $1 billion) in 2016 by GM, a company with all the tech cachet of a dinosaur. From then on, Cruise was perceived as a car company first and a tech company second. Natives of San Francisco, where Cruise elected to test its robotaxis, may have questioned why a Detroit company wasn’t practicing in its own city and was putting San Franciscans at risk. Cruise was the visiting team, while Waymo was the home team. The crowd booed every infraction by Cruise.

Waymo, by comparison, which was sired by Google, is a source of Bay Area pride to this day. Here, everyone loves Google, works there, wants to work there, or has a Google story to tell. A fellow editor recalls seeing Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google’s founders, riding their scooters to work before the company built Googleplex, their massive Mountain View campus.

A month before the October 2 incident, Vogt was interviewed by the Washington Post. There is a baseball superstition that you don’t mention a no-hitter while the game is in progress. In September, Vogt still had a no-hitter. 

“No one has ever been seriously hurt across several millions of miles of driving and hundreds of thousands of rides provided in San Francisco,” said Vogt. 

Vogt was, no doubt, frustrated. Cruise had been ordered to reduce its fleet of AVs by 50 percent for what he called “mundane” issues that “wouldn’t catch any attention if it was a human driver, but would cause a firestorm if it was a driverless car,” per the Washington Post.

The mundane incidents referred to included a Cruise vehicle that entered an intersection and was struck by a firetruck on its way to an emergency (a passenger was treated at the scene for non severe injuries), another that got stuck in wet concrete (an edge case not considered?), and perhaps the one that annoyed public officials the most: a snarl caused by several Cruise vehicles stalled in traffic near a music festival. The company blamed the music festival for jamming the data signal and preventing them from restarting the vehicles.

Vogt went on downplay the incident. “We’re talking about a 15-minute traffic delay” for a technology that is “providing a massive and quite measurable public benefit to the community.”

Although throwing a technology experiment out of San Francisco may be a surprise, AV ventures may face nationwide skepticism.

“These companies are using public roads and putting all the road users at risk with immature tech,” said Phil Koopman, a Carnegie Mellon University professor. “We’ve gotten to the point where we can live with the way human drivers are and we have no way to know whether driverless cars will be safer than humans.”

Vogt was to continue to promote AVs as the safer choice over human drivers, shouting over the voices of any first responders who found their paths blocked by Cruise vehicles and safety concerns by city officials. Of cars that blocked intersections, the company’s response was that its vehicles are trained to stop in a dangerous or misunderstood situation.

For Techies, Silence and Bragging Rights

For Cruise’s ideal customers, those who probably didn’t need to drive in the city. Why bother with a car? You have to pay to garage it. We’ll Uber everywhere. The whole of San Francisco is 7 by 7 miles—ideal for short rides. But for the taxi drivers, the service workers, those barely hanging on in the Tenderloin and the Mission District, the messengers on their bikes … and all the rest of San Francisco, in fact, that someone could suffer, even die, from a new and insufficiently tested technology, proved to be too much. Vogt’s claims of unavoidable collateral damage on the way to a mostly safe self-driving vehicle utopia were met with zero tolerance.

What better city to launch a robotaxi service than in San Francisco, or so an out-of-town car company may have thought. Here was a population of techies infamous for making a lot of money—and spending it on food, drinks and entertainment. To get from bars to food trucks or high-end tweezer-food establishments then home required a ride service. But would you want a gabby driver, as Uber and Lyft drivers often are? Should you have to look up from your hook-up app to chat with someone who has nothing in common with you and is only angling for a bigger tip or more stars? Uber recognized this and introduced a “quiet mode” option on their app in 2019. Select it and your driver should not chat you up. But then you have to sit in someone’s car after you let them know you didn’t want to talk to them. Awkward. 

Not only does an AV avoid the chat or awkward silence—it has cachet. You arrive at your happy hour in a tech-decked-out Waymo and you casually mention how you got there. What could be more worthy of bragging rights than an AV, the epitome of technology (until we have flying cars, anyway)?

What’s the Play?

The size of the market that Waymo and Cruise is chasing is not entirely clear. Is it the market displaced by taxi services? Taxi driving does not appear to be lucrative, if judging by the taxi drivers or their vehicles. But taxi drivers have the most to lose with robotaxis. Taxi drivers have successfully fought off ride-sharing services in several major cities (London, UK, and Vancouver, Canada, for example), and still armed up, will no doubt protest robotaxis.

Uber, the company that started the whole ride-sharing phenonium, has abandoned its plan to abandon its drivers and replace them with AVs, after one of its robotaxis hit and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz. in 2018.

Austin City Limits

San Francisco was not the only city in which Cruise became unwelcome. Cruise vehicles seemed to have made pests out of themselves in Austin, Tex.

Robotaxis cause traffic jams in Austin, Tex. Image Autowire.

Robotaxis cause traffic jams in Austin, Tex. Image Autowire.

Every techie’s favorite city outside of California no doubt saw a coup in the making by accepting the Cruise robotaxis. As soon as the Cruise fleet coursed into Austin, the little white cars quickly drew attention to themselves—and not in a positive way. Here they were clogging up intersections, drifting into bike lanes. It was too much for Austin to bear—and a feast for local TV stations.

One news-at-11 account showed Cruise vehicles stopping in the middle of an intersection when confused.