However, in the most recent earnings conference call for shareholders, Cruise CEO and CTO Kyle Vogt described a rosy scenario approaching, when their multibillion dollar investments might finally break out onto the open road of profitability and any current issues would be resolved. In fact, he argues driverless robotaxis will ultimately be safer and more convenient than regular cars.
“Safety continues to improve despite increasing complexity,” said Vogt two weeks ago. “Our analysis of the first 1 million miles shows AVs experienced 54% fewer collisions than human drivers in similar environments, and 92% fewer where the AV was the primary contributor. In other words, the vast majority of collisions are caused by inattentive human drivers, not the AV.” Vogt envisioned a day when people will find it more affordable to take robotaxis instead of owning cars.
The two companies must now clear a final regulatory hurdle from the California Public Utilities Commission before taking on human-driven Uber and Lyft unobstructed in San Francisco. But the votes have been delayed twice, following concerns voiced by local first responders and law enforcement.
There are multiple documented cases of AVs rolling into emergency scenes, oblivious to human commands to stop. The vehicles also have a tendency to “brick,” or come to a complete stop when confused, regardless of location. (See tweets above.)
Local regulators have largely had to watch from the sidewalks, and they’ve been loud about their frustration (PDF). Jeffrey Tumlin, director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, says he’s bullish about the technology, but not the way company performance data is largely a black box to local officials.
“The companies have mostly denied all of our data requests around performance,” he said. “So to the extent that we have data, it is largely from reporting that industry must do — at the federal level to NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), and at the state level to the California Public Utilities Commission and the DMV.” Tumlin claims the bulk of safety performance data San Francisco transit officials get is coming from calls to 911.
But Dan Chatman, chair of UC Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning, says the rollout of robotaxis is inevitable — and not just for San Francisco, or California. Three years ago, there were only test vehicles in a handful of places. Now, they prowl the streets of several large cities, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Austin and Miami. Cruise began offering the public a waitlist for autonomous ride hailing in San Francisco in February of 2022. Waymo began offering rides the following November.
“It isn’t completely transparent to me that, just because there are some well publicized issues with the vehicles, therefore, they should be shut down,” Chatman said. “The CPUC is in a position where it has to weigh the potential benefits and the costs, and I don’t envy them their task.”
“Cruise is no longer a science project,” CEO Vogt said in that earnings call earlier this month. “There was once significant risk and reasons to doubt, but it’s now a rapidly growing business and transformational product.”
KQED’s Alexander Gonzalez contributed to this story.