NHTSA Launches Safety Investigation Into GM's Cruise

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

General Motors’ Cruise may be one of the first companies in the world to field driverless vehicles as part of a commercial endeavor. But this doesn’t appear to have endeared the brand to everyday people. The business appears to be loathed by San Franciscan residents and emergency response crews, who have only gotten angrier since state regulators allowed the business to expand operations. 

Sustained reports of mishaps and injuries involving the vehicles has encouraged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to launch a preliminary investigation into the company — which may also explain why Cruise just issued a press release explaining how it’s going to remedy all of the above

According to Reuters, the NHTSA has confirmed that its Office of Defects Investigation has received two reports from Cruise of incidents where pedestrians were injured and has subsequently identified two more incidents by watching videos posted to public websites.

From Reuters

NHTSA said the reports include Cruise autonomous vehicles "encroaching on pedestrians present in or entering roadways, including pedestrian crosswalks, in the proximity of the intended path of the vehicles."
NHTSA's preliminary evaluation covers about 594 vehicles and is the first step before the agency [seeks] to force a recall.
"This could increase the risk of a collision with a pedestrian, which may result in severe injury or death," the agency added.
GM is spending nearly $2 billion a year on Cruise but insists the business represents a "giant growth opportunity." In June, GM CEO Mary Barra reiterated a forecast that Cruise could generate $50 billion a year in annual revenue by 2030.
A spokesperson for Cruise said the company communicates regularly with NHTSA and "has consistently cooperated with each of NHTSA's requests for information."

But the real issue is whether the probe has any teeth. Companies vying to put autonomous test vehicles onto public roads have been given an incredible amount of leeway by state and federal regulators since they began appearing over a decade ago. Initially, it was the technology that kept them from sharing space with the rest of us. But that gave way around 2015, leading to numerous Congressional regulatory programs that seemed hell-bent on getting more AVs on public roads (see: A Vision for Safety). While House and Senate members never seemed to have a clue about how the vehicles functioned, most appeared convinced by industry lobbyists that the advancement of self-driving vehicles would lead to a future where traffic accidents no longer existed. 

More recently, we’ve seen the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) board effectively going against San Francisco to ensure the expansion of Cruise and Waymo. Exasperated by public complaints and hectic encounters, San Francisco’s local government no longer seems interested in allowing autonomous vehicles to operate on public roads. The city’s fire department has cited dozens of interactions over the last twelve months where self-driving cars stalled emergency response vehicles or needed to be rescued after getting themselves stuck in traffic. Meanwhile, residents are tired of being inconvenienced by self-driving cars and have grown outraged after learning the local police were using the vehicles’ camera arrays as surveillance systems. 

There seems to be a stark divide between local and state (or federal) governments on how to handle AVs. One wonders how this will impact the NHTSA’s investigation, especially considering how companies like Cruise are already supposed to have a steady stream of communication with all of the above. 

It’s worth noting that the NHTSA had opened a separate safety inquiry into Cruise vehicles last December after a couple of rear-end crashes. The probe stemmed from concerns that the AVs were braking harder than seemed necessary and occasionally became immobilized in traffic. The agency was also supposed to be deciding whether or not the company could deploy additional vehicles without physical controls for human drivers it doesn’t use anyway. However, no final decision appears to have been made. 

Meanwhile, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has been looking into Cruise since August after one of its AVs ended up striking an emergency response vehicle. That was further spurred on by public complaints and additional incidents, ending with the DMV asking the brand to scale back how many cars it has deployed in San Francisco. Cruise appeared to have complied with the request, though its ultimate goal remains the same — perpetual expansion to take charge of a business segment GM believes will be worth tens of billions annually in the coming years. 

Additionally, there has been some grumbling that some of the negative media attention being given to Cruise has been spurred on by corporate warfare. Cruise’s main rival is Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet which likewise happens to own Google. Interestingly, Waymo doesn’t seem to be getting the same negative attention in San Francisco that Cruise has despite the former having been chided for similar antics in and around Phoenix, Arizona. 

That may indeed be due to some kind of media shenanigans. But Cruise has a slightly larger fleet in California while Waymo’s numbers are strongest in Phoenix. Backlash against the Alphabet-owned brand was likewise already present in Arizona while both companies were ramping up operations in California. Waymo may have already learned from its mistakes or is simply keeping its head down in California while its main rival is drowning in a deluge of bad press. 

Regardless of either scenario, local leadership in San Francisco doesn’t seem overly thrilled with either brand and appears committed to blocking any future AV expansions. Residents have likewise taken it upon themselves to disable self-driving vehicles testing on public roads in protest, though the focus presently appears to be directed at Cruise AVs.

[Image: Cruise]

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Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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3 of 18 comments
  • Voyager Voyager on Oct 18, 2023

    Car needs a reformat in order to make it operate autonomously. Very much like the phone went through to become smart! AV developers' biggest mistake was to jump in bed with car makers to realize self-driving. Cruise works together with GM, Argo AI (went belly up) with Ford, Waymo with Stellantis (Chrysler Pacifica) and Jaguar (iPace), Uber with Volvo (XC90). MIT and WSJ have calculated that thus far more than $100 billion has been spent on vehicle autonomy. AV developers could have prevented wasting so much VC by using a different type of vehlcle. Added benefits: lower operating costs, more kWh efficiency and improved road safety. After all, the average cab ride consists of 1.2 passenger!

    • SPPPP SPPPP on Oct 18, 2023

      I don't see how using a smaller vehicle would have made development any easier or cheaper. I think it would be much harder and more expensive with a smaller vehicle. If they ever get it working OK, then they can try to miniaturize it. But even so, the self-driving goodies would add much more percentage cost to a cheap light vehicle as compared to a large heavy vehicle.

  • Dukeisduke Dukeisduke on Oct 18, 2023

    Are the editors here working in the Hawaiian time zone? It's 9:38am Central / 10:38am Eastern, and no new articles yet.

  • Conslaw I rented an Altima for a 2,000 mile drive in 2019. It was a fantastic vehicle for that purpose. It had all the features we could want, was quiet, comfortable, peppy, and delivered 37-40 MPG, including stretches with 80 mph speed limits. I'd like to see any CUV do that.
  • Tassos When these were new cars, i tassos, could barely afford to “settle” for a tin can death trap 1991 civic dx. I could’ve done better for myself, but chose not to. Just like now - I could be enjoying my sunset years but i prefer to bully contributors on a free site i CHOOSE to visit.
  • Bd2 There's Telluride news you could be posting.
  • Tassos I listen to Andrew Tate podcasts. Also, the voices in my head provide plenty of entertainment. Biden dollars