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Cruise self-driving cars were suspended in California. It could affect the whole industry.

The robotaxi company Cruise has been revving up for rapid growth. In August, California regulators granted carte blanche to the outfit in San Francisco, where its CEO has envisioned deploying 10 times more robotaxis than the several hundred it operated this summer. Meanwhile, Cruise, which is majority-owned by General Motors, announced expansions into a dozen other U.S. cities including Austin, Charlotte, Houston, Raleigh, and Washington.
California just forced Cruise to hit the brakes. On Tuesday, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles suspended Cruise’s permits to deploy driverless vehicles statewide. The impact of that move will reverberate throughout the tech and car industries, and well beyond California.
In its press release, the California DMV cited “an unreasonable risk to public safety” posed by Cruise robotaxis. It is not hard to see how the DMV might arrive at that conclusion. For months, San Francisco police, fire, and transportation officials have drawn attention to a litany of incidents involving robotaxis from Cruise as well as its rival Waymo (a subsidiary of Alphabet, which also owns Google) involving blocked traffic, interrupted emergency responses, and hindered public transportation. In just the past few weeks, Cruise vehicles have collided with a fire truck, gotten stuck in wet concrete, and halted atop a pedestrian who had been struck by a hit-and-run driver. It is the last of those incidents—and Cruise’s alleged withholding of camera evidence showing that its car dragged the pedestrian for 20 feet—that apparently triggered the DMV’s suspension. As awful as that incident is, the DMV clearly had concerns about Cruise well before it occurred on Oct. 2; in August, the DMV cited safety issues when it forced the company to halve its autonomous fleet.
Amazingly, it was only two months ago that the California Public Utilities Commission (one of whose members is a former Cruise executive) decided to allow Cruise and Waymo to operate as many robotaxis as they want throughout San Francisco—a decision that was vehemently opposed by city officials as well as angry residents who mounted a grassroots campaign to place traffic cones on robotaxis’ hoods, rendering them inoperable. California’s regulatory structure splits autonomous vehicle responsibilities between the DMV, which handles physical vehicles, and the CPUC, which regulates ride-hail operations. A year ago in Slate, I criticized that structure as unwieldy and sclerotic; the diametrically opposed robotaxi decisions of the CPUC and DMV now make it seem outright dysfunctional. California’s Legislature needs to step in and restructure the state’s self-driving oversight.
Beyond the Golden State, the suspension of Cruise’s permits raises questions about the safety of Cruise vehicles on public roads in Austin, where the company is now operating, as well as the cities, from Miami to Seattle, where it plans to expand. If Cruise’s technology is too dangerous to operate without a safety driver in San Francisco, why is it OK to subject those living in Nashville or Dallas to the risk?
For Cruise, the California DMV’s move is about the last thing the company needs right now. Beyond the freeze in Bay Area operations, the company’s planned launch in Los Angeles will have to be shelved, at least temporarily. Worse, the DMV’s citation of “unreasonable risk” to road users directly contradicts Cruise’s claims, championed frequently by CEO Kyle Vogt, that regulators must clear the way for robotaxis in order to address an ongoing American road safety crisis. Cruise even ran advertisements over the summer in newspapers, including the New York Times, headlined “Humans are terrible drivers,” offering its technology as the optimal solution. That argument was always silly; there are far easier and more immediate ways to reduce crash deaths than by adopting robotaxis, such as installing automated traffic cameras and lowering speed limits. Although the California DMV’s move makes Cruise’s safety pitch seem even less credible, the company appears to be sticking with it. “Ultimately, we develop and deploy autonomous vehicles in an effort to save lives,” Cruise tweeted Tuesday while announcing the suspension of operations in San Francisco.
Tweaking its safety narrative may be the least of Cruise’s problems right now. A source who previously worked at Cruise shared with me the company’s internal 2023 objectives, including 2,300 robotaxis deployed and $120 million in revenue, mostly from the Bay Area. (Cruise did not respond to questions I asked about those figures while writing a previous article.) Those goals were already going to be a stretch (the company had around 300 autonomous vehicles deployed in California in August), but halting robotaxi operations in California makes them essentially impossible. Meanwhile, higher interest rates and an ongoing autoworkers strike are adding to the financial pressure of carmakers, including General Motors, Cruise’s patron. GM’s patience with Cruise’s problems could wear thin, perhaps to the point that it walks away entirely—as Ford and Volkswagen did with the autonomous-vehicle startup a year ago after providing over $1 billion in investment.
Waymo, the other robotaxi heavyweight, has been tied to fewer dangerous incidents than Cruise and has not received a similar smackdown from the California DMV. Still, a suspension of Cruise’s permits carries risks for that company as well, especially if it damages the popular perception of robotaxis writ large, as happened in 2018 after a prototype self-driving car from Uber struck and killed Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona.
Such fears are growing within the AV sector, where Cruise has developed a reputation for playing fast and loose with safeguards. In the hours after the DMV’s announcement, AV boosters were already moving to draw a bright line between Cruise and other AV players. Matt Wansley, a former executive of the AV company nuTonomy, told the New York Times, “Companies should be judged by their on-road safety performance, and there is a significant difference between Cruise and Waymo.” Alex Roy, an veteran, implied that Cruise was an outlier when he shared news of its suspension on LinkedIn: “Remember how I’ve been saying not all Autonomous Vehicle developers are the same? Here you go.”
But if Cruise does end up shining a harsh spotlight on the entire robotaxi industry, that would hardly be a bad thing. Although robotaxis’ supposed safety benefits remain speculative, their mission to make car use as easy as possible could catalyze driving, emissions, and sprawl—and cement the autocentricity of American cities. Indeed, Cruise may end up doing America a favor by bringing scrutiny to an emergent technology that badly needs it.



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