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After Cruise's Implosion, What's Next for Robotaxis?

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Cruise cars parked in a lot on 16th St. in San Francisco on Dec. 14, 2023.
Cruise cars parked in a lot on 16th St. in San Francisco on Dec. 14, 2023. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

Robotaxis had their Icarus moment in 2023, writes Joshua Bote, tech reporter for The San Francisco Standard. After Cruise’s rise and fall in San Francisco, what’s ahead for the robotaxi industry?


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, and welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. There was a moment last year where it seemed like the rise of robo taxis or driverless vehicles in San Francisco was just inevitable. There was fascination, but also skepticism, and yet they just kept coming until, of course, the carpet got pulled out from under one of the biggest names in the industry; Cruise.

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[news clip]

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: After a series of viral mishaps, bad PR and a cruise vehicle hitting and dragging a woman. Cruise is now off the streets. So does that mean robo taxis are done for?

Joshua Bote: That really is like, felt like such a severe turning point for how regulators and the general public and even the tech press saw cruise, right?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Today, the future of robo taxis in San Francisco.

Joshua Bote: Cruise was sort of this company that felt like you saw them everywhere.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Joshua Bote is a tech reporter for the San Francisco Standard.

Joshua Bote: You saw them in the sunset. You saw them in the Richmond, and eventually you started seeing them all over the city. I think that it was widely understood that cruise was the company that was expanding, and Waymo was sort of trying to be slower and be a little bit less aggressive with their expansion in San Francisco.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I mean, back in August, Cruise and Waymo got the okay to charge fares, and it really just felt like, okay, these things are just going to be around like they’re going to be part of life here in San Francisco. Is that how it felt to you?

Joshua Bote: Yeah. You know, there’s definitely was this idea that they were sort of inevitable, right? That once they got sort of introduced into the cities, that they would just keep on coming and keep on expanding and, you know, you’d see less and less drivers operating these things in these robo taxis would operate on their own around the packed streets of downtown and Union Square, and you’d see them everywhere. There were a lot of big numbers that were being touted around, not just by analysts, but by the companies themselves.

Joshua Bote: GM executives and cruise executives were like, by 2025, cruise would be on track to make $1 billion. By 2030, cruise would make $50 billion like the sky was the limit. I think people took them at their word that this technology was working, and that it would prove to be the future of trading in San Francisco, not just, you know, in cars. But I think that, like people believed that it would upend public transit systems and change the way that people get around the city.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Right. So the messaging at the time was, this is the future. Humans are terrible drivers. Leave it up to the robotaxis. But then this feeling that Waymo and Cruise especially were flying high, seemed to really take a pretty quick turn when these high profile incidents and videos came out. Can you remind us of some of the biggest ones?

Joshua Bote: Almost immediately after Cruise and Waymo were approved to expand their services and operations in San Francisco? That was August 10th. A day later, I was covering outside lands, and I remember leaving Golden Gate Park and immediately seeing just a cruise stuck at the intersection for like a solid half hour, just causing traffic jams. It was such a jarring thing to see that this technology had immediately faltered.

Joshua Bote: Around that time, too. There was an incident in North Beach where there were like 5 or 6 cruisers that, like, couldn’t move. And that was just this one two punch of what is actually going to happen when if there’s a Warriors game or if there’s like a big giant scam, like what will happen? And how can crews specifically adapt to big events like this?

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And, and I mean, those stolen cars were one thing, but then people actually were hurt.

Joshua Bote: Yeah, there were other incidents, right? Like there were cruisers that were stuck in wet concrete. There were cruisers that like, got tangled up in electrical wiring during a storm. A lot of emergency vehicles and first responders and, you know, police and fire unions complained about crews and Waymo cars impeding their access to emergency scenes. But the big, big incident that I think sort of proved to be the turning point for how we saw crews in Waymo was, on October 2nd.

[news clip]

Joshua Bote: A hit and run. Driver struck a woman. The driver fled the scene, but then a cruise immediately after ran her over.

[news clip]

Joshua Bote: It was a horrible, horrible thing to see. I think that people were really disturbed and shaken up by it. I think the immediate response by crews also proved to be a little bit concerning. They really tried to frame it in a different light in a way that as time would go on and more information came out about it, that it felt like Cruz was sort of deceiving the public and officials about how they handled the situation. Before the end of the month. Cruz had fully had its license to operate suspended by the DMV because of specifically this incident, and Cruz itself voluntarily pulled out all of its fleet across the nation.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Can we expect them to be back on the road anytime soon?

Joshua Bote: They said when they pulled out the fleet that they would come back in a smaller city and on a slower scale. They haven’t identified the city yet. That’s something that I’ve tried asking them about. It seems like they’re going to try and do a much slower expansion.

Joshua Bote: And it’s interesting to see, because before all of this happened, they were really adamant about grocery, really adamant about expanding their services. And this just feels like a far cry from it. Right? Just one city a lot more slowly and just trying to emphasize safety and emphasize building trust with the public again. And I think that that’s something that we’re going to see a lot more of in 2024.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming up. What Cruse’s downfall means for the rest of the robotaxi industry. Stay with us.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, Joshua, we’ve been talking a lot about crews, but they’re not the only robo taxi company. Right? So I’m wondering where what’s happened to crews, and it’s sort of fall from grace. Where has that left other companies?

Joshua Bote: I think from the analyst and expert point of view, Waymo is now the top dog. For so long, we sort of understood Cruise and Waymo to be sort of like a rabbit and the tortoise type story, where cruise was moving really fast and accelerating at this level, that felt untenable. And it ultimately was. And Waymo was understood to be this sort of slower, more safety oriented company. And as a result of that, Waymo does have this perception.

Joshua Bote: But ultimately, Cruise’s mishaps hurt the driverless car market at large. Even Waymo sort of has to continue doubling down on these safety emphasis and doubling down and just making sure that they are gaining this trust. And as for Zoox, which is Amazon owned, even, they’re still trying to ramp up in a way that can sort of build trust and build better relationships with the city.

Joshua Bote: There are other, you know, robo trucks and sort of these vehicles that are delivering things that are being introduced, highway robo trucks and other things like that. But I think for our intents and purposes, I think Waymo and to a lesser extent, Zoox are going to be the companies to keep an eye out on.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Do you think that public officials are still friendly to robo taxis, even after everything that happened with cruiser? Do you think that something fundamental has shifted?

Joshua Bote: I always think that it varies on sort of the state versus local level because, you know, the Board of Supervisors, even before Cruise and Waymo were going to expand on this bigger level. There was a lot of skepticism from the board across all sides. On a state level, there is a little bit more attention being drawn to it. There’s a lot more skepticism from their end, which is why you’re seeing a lot of legislators introduce bills to try and get some more regulation.

Joshua Bote: As for Gavin Newsom, he vetoed a bill that would have had more regulations on robo trucks. What he said when he vetoed that robo truck regulation bill, was there enough things already in place to regulate robo taxis? And I don’t know that activists and other people fully agree with that, but that was the logic that he provided.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: What is your sense, then, right now, of how the public in San Francisco in particular, is feeling about these robo taxis and, and these companies.

Joshua Bote: You know, I was in the wharf recently and I was waiting for the streetcar to come pick me up. And I was sitting next to a tourist family. And the tourist family, like, saw Waymo driving by. And they were like amazed by it. They’re like, oh my God, it’s a driverless car. That’s so wild.

Joshua Bote: San Francisco is such a crazy place and people think it’s cool or people think it’s stranger otters unnerving or it runs the gamut emotionally. But beyond this idea that that’s a cool thing, I don’t know that people are sort of using it in their day to day lives. People at the end of the day are still calling up Uber and Lyft.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, what lessons are you taking away from the story of Cruise’s rise and fall?

Joshua Bote: I think sort of evergreen one is to always be skeptical of companies, especially tech companies, when they make claims that are too good to be true. Like, cruise took out the ad that was like, we are safer than human drivers. Human drivers are terrible. And they took that out in the Chronicle, in the New York Times. It was everywhere. And even then I felt a little bit of skepticism.

Joshua Bote: But with all the details that kept coming out about how cruise wanted hyperspeed growth and how cruise sought to expand almost at the expense of their safety and regulation goals. When technology collides with the real world and and it’s no longer in beta testing and you sort of have to live with it, there are so many unforeseen consequences. And I think that that’s the thing that we have to pay attention to.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Joshua, thank you so much for joining us on the show and for talking about this with me. I really appreciate it.

Joshua Bote: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be on the show.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Joshua Bote, a tech reporter for the San Francisco Standard. This 30 minute conversation with Joshua was cut down and edited by senior editor Alan Montecillo. Maria Esquinca is our producer. She scored this episode. Music courtesy of Audio Network. The Bay is a production of KQED Public Media in San Francisco. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks for listening. Peace.

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