The very slow restart of GM's driverless cruise car business

At a vast complex in Warren, Michigan, General Motors' hopes for the future of its driverless cars come to fruition in a virtual reality headset offered to visitors.

In one video, the electric, autonomous car drives itself. Wirelessly connected to traffic lights and surrounding roads, the car avoids collisions and reduces congestion, part of what GM calls its “0-0-0” vision – “zero accidents, zero emissions, zero congestion.”

At least, that's the plan. GM's driverless future seems much further away today than it did a year ago, when Cruise, GM's driverless car subsidiary, was engaged in an aggressive expansion of its robot taxi services, testing in 15 cities across 10 states .

On October 2, a Cruise driverless car hit and dragged a pedestrian 20 feet on a San Francisco street, causing serious injuries. Weeks later, the California Department of Motor Vehicles accused Cruise of omitting drag from a video of the crash initially provided to the agency and suspended the company's license in the state.

In November, Cruise voluntarily suspended all operations across the country after facing widespread criticism that it was neglecting safety as it expanded its driverless taxi service. Cruise also fired nine executives, its CEO resigned and the company laid off a quarter of its workforce.

Now comes the hard part: rebuilding a ruined reputation. In recent interviews with the New York Times, the three executives who now run Cruise say they are in no rush to get back on the road. After learning the hard way the risks of moving too fast with cutting-edge technology, Cruise slowed its development to a breakneck pace to avoid another major accident.

“For a long time, Cruise was moving really fast and other competitors weren't,” said Craig Glidden, who became Cruise's president and chief operating officer in November. Now, he said, safety is Cruise's “north star.”

But going slowly means the company risks falling far behind its main rivals. Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, has had driverless taxis operating in the Phoenix area since 2020 and in San Francisco since late 2022 without major incidents, and recently expanded to Los Angeles. Zoox, a subsidiary of Amazon, has been testing a steering-wheelless robot taxi in Las Vegas since last June.

“Catching up with Waymo from a technology standpoint will take three to five years at most,” said Alex Roy, a consultant and former executive in the autonomous automotive industry. He added that it was even more difficult for Cruise to catch up commercially because Waymo was “generating revenue with a confidence that Cruise has never earned.”

Some industry observers were surprised that GM didn't shut down Cruise after its public meltdown late last year. Since acquiring the company in 2016, GM has spent more than $8 billion on its driverless subsidiary. Cruise lost $3.48 billion last year and another $519 million in the first three months of 2024.

“I was thinking in late 2023, early 2024 that the most likely outcome was that they would shut down Cruise completely,” said Reilly Brennan, a partner at Trucks Venture Capital, which invests in the future of transportation.

But after cutting $1 billion from Cruise's 2024 budget, Mary T. Barra, GM's chief executive, reiterated her commitment to the company during earnings calls. In April, she told investors that Cruise had made “tangible progress,” although GM is exploring several options to finance the business, including taking on outside investment.

After former Cruise CEO and co-founder Kyle Vogt stepped down in November, GM named two presidents who report to its board: Mo Elshenawy, previously the company's executive vice president of engineering, and Mr. Glidden, who also serves as GM's general counsel. In February, Cruise hired Steve Kenner, a veteran product safety executive, as its chief safety officer.

The three executives all decide on security decisions, such as when to take the next step in implementation. Such requests, Kenner said, must be unanimous.

So far, Cruise has taken baby steps to get back on the road. In April, he chose Phoenix, home of his operations center, as the first city to restart testing with human drivers. On May 13, after a month of driving a handful of vehicles to understand local road characteristics, Cruise moved into supervised autonomous testing, with two safety drivers per vehicle.

Cruise said his robot taxis were, on average, safer than a human driver. But so-called edge cases – incidents such as road construction or erratic cyclists to which humans can react intuitively – bedevil robot taxis. Mr Elshenawy said the cars had improved their navigation of construction zones and the way they handled emergency vehicles.

Cruise hopes to offer a driverless ride-hailing service in one city by the end of 2024, operating with safety drivers in fewer than five cities, Glidden said. That is, if the edge case problem can be improved.

As Mr. Elshenawy's engineering team works to improve the technology, Mr. Glidden and Mr. Kenner have been traveling across the country to meet with regulators. Cruise met with local officials and state regulators in Arizona, Texas and California, as well as with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He has also spoken to several southeastern cities where he has previously tested his fleet.

In California, Cruise has answered questions from state regulators about driverless testing, but it's unclear if or when he will be able to get a permit again. The talent pool in Silicon Valley is essential to Cruise's business, so executives say they are committed to staying in the state.

Whether Cruise's cautious approach will restore confidence in the company among regulators is an open question. Dave Cortese, a California state senator who represents Silicon Valley, said the autonomous vehicle industry's aggressive testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads in the past has “created tension and mistrust.”

For the company to win over regulators, it needs a “deep demonstration of transparency” to demonstrate that an incident like the one on Oct. 2 will not happen again, said Mr. Roy, the consultant.

“We may not agree, but I think there are a lot of places where we agree,” said Tilly Chang, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. “But it is not even clear to us what it would take to reinstate them.”

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