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The very slow restart of GM's self-driving cruise car business| GuyWhoKnowsThings


At a sprawling complex in Warren, Michigan, General Motors' hopes for the future of its self-driving cars are manifested in a virtual reality headset offered to visitors.

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

At least, that's the plan. The future of GM's self-driving cars seems much further away today than it did a year ago, when Cruise, GM's self-driving car subsidiary, was mired in a deep crisis. aggressive expansion of its robotaxi services, testing them in 15 cities in 10 states.

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

In November, Cruise voluntarily paused all operations across the country after facing widespread criticism that it was neglecting safety as it expanded its driverless taxi service. Cruise too pushed nine executives, its CEO Lowand the company fired 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 about the risks of moving too fast with cutting-edge technology, Cruise has slowed down his dizzying development to avoid another major mishap.

“For a long time, Cruise moved really fast and other competitors didn't,” said Craig Glidden, who became Cruise's president and chief administrative officer in November. Now, he said, safety is Cruise's “North Star.”

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

“Catching up with Waymo technologically will take three to five years at best,” said Alex Roy, a consultant and former self-driving car industry executive. He added that it was even harder for Cruise to catch up commercially because Waymo was “generating revenue with a confidence that Cruise never had.”

Some industry observers were surprised that GM did not close Cruise after its public crisis 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 dollars last year and another $519 million during the first three months of 2024.

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

But after cutting a billion dollars Of Cruise's 2024 budget, GM CEO Mary T. Barra reiterated her commitment to the company during earnings calls. In April, she told investors that Cruise had made “tangible progress,” although GM is exploring different options to finance the business, including making outside investments.

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

The three executives make security decisions, such as when to take the next step in the deployment. Those calls, Kenner said, have to 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 the test with human drivers. On May 13, after a month of driving various vehicles to understand the characteristics of local roads, Cruise transitioned to supervised autonomous testingwith two safety drivers per vehicle.

Cruise used to say that his robot taxis were, on average, safer than a human driver. But so-called edge cases — incidents like road construction or erratic cyclists to which humans can react intuitively — plagued robotaxis. Elshenawy said the cars had improved their navigation in construction zones and how they handle emergency vehicles.

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

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

In California, Cruise has answered questions from state regulators about self-driving testing, but it's unclear if or when it might regain a permit. The talent pool in Silicon Valley is essential to Cruise's business, so executives say they are committed to staying in the state.

It's an open question whether Cruise's cautious approach restores confidence in the company among regulators. Dave Cortese, a California state senator who represents Silicon Valley, said the industry's aggressive testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads in the past had “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 October 2 will not happen again, said consultant Roy.

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


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