Cruise Played Fast and Loose with Self Driving, Now its CEO is Out

It’s been a bad year for Cruise. The autonomous ride hailing service has suffered some major setbacks following the suspension of its driverless vehicle ridehailing permit and a fairly public hit-and-run accident involving one of the company’s driverless cars. Now, its CEO is out, too.

The news of Kyle Vogt’s departure came from the former CEO himself late Sunday night in the form of an announcement on X (formerly Twitter). Vogt signaled that his egress doesn’t mean the end at Cruise, and, in fact, the company still has a very in-tact roadmap for the future. However, it’s hard to ignore that Vogt’s exit from Cruise was already written on the wall—and that spells a huge competitive advantage for Waymo.

“I am sorry we have veered off course under my leadership and that this has affected many Cruisers in a deeply personal way,” wrote Vogt in an email to his employees last week obtained by Reuters. “As CEO, I take responsibility for the situation Cruise is in today. There are no excuses, and there is no sugar coating what has happened. We need to double down on safety, transparency, and community engagement.”

To better understand where we are today, let’s take a quick look back at how we got here:

Starry-eyed self-driving startup Cruise was bought out by General Motors in 2016 for the hefty sum of $1 billion.GM’s approach to onboarding Cruise and its then-40-employees into its legal automaker ecosystem wasn’t as strong-armed as most other silicon valley tech acquisitions. There was no massive rebranding under GM, nor was there a huge restructure—the same person who co-founded Cruise in their garage remained at the masthead and made waves as the second youngest senior director at GM.

GM’s plan was to use Cruise’s already heavy lead into vehicle autonomy as a jump-start into the future. The automaker would rely on the company’s tech to pad its existing suite of safety features, plus tap into the potential goldmine that is the future of driverless robotaxis.

But Cruise rapidly became a money pit for GM. Even though the service provided 250,000 driverless rides for customers across the U.S., it cost GM a staggering $8 billion to keep the doors open since 2017. And on top of this, bad headlines circulated the press as driverless Cruise-branded Chevrolet Bolts began causing massive bouts of traffic congestion in the streets of San Francisco.

Cruise may have grown too big, too quickly—or, at least that’s what a whistleblower warned regulators of in 2022.

Regulators didn’t take action following an anonymous report of the company’s so-called “chaotic environment.” Eventually, locals became fed-up with the company’s vehicles blocking streets and began to sabotage the robotaxis with trafic cones to prevent them from moving. And when that didn’t work, the protestors picked up hammers to smash the cars instead.

Despite this, things were looking up for Cruise earlier this year. The company was granted the ability to begin charging for rides around the clock for its rides even though traffic jams were fresh on the minds of regulators and the public. That didn’t last long, though, as Cruise’s vehicles were soon thereafter involved in a number of collisions, including one with a firetruck that led to a reduction in the company’s on-street fleet and another accident involving a Cruise vehicle that ran over a pedestrian launched in front of it AV by a hit-and-run driver.

The California DMV then suspended Cruise’s driverless permit entirely, citing a safety risk.

By this time, Cruise’s change in leadership was almost assured. GM then confirmed that it would stop building the Cruise Origin driverless shuttle and Cruise confirmed that it would be hiring a third party to evaluate its response to recent events.

Cruise hasn’t explicitly said that it would slow down now, but with its co-founder departing and all eyes on how regulation around driverless services could increase, it’s hard to believe that Cruise will continue operating under the minimum viable product mantra of “move fast and break things.” It could also be viewed as another speedbump in the road for fully autonomous vehicles. Last October, Ford-backed Argo AI shut down despite receiving a similar sizable investment of $1 billion. At the time, Ford CEO Jim Farley said that AVs were “a long way off,” perhaps signaling that robotaxis aren’t the key to AV alchemy like automakers once believed.

All of this leaves Alphabet’s Waymo perfectly positioned to corner the AV market, at least in the U.S. Waymo remains one of the only providers providing paid autonomous ridehailing services in the country, and while it isn’t free from complaints, Waymo does seem to be the last man standing in this arena (at least for now).

Meanwhile, automakers will likely continue to chase Level 3 and Level 4 autonomy in consumer-facing vehicles over the next decade or longer. It’s unlikely, per Farley himself, that automakers will continue to invest heavily in Level 5 AV technology unless it can purchase the complete package from some key player like Waymo or Cruise. Should Waymo continue to build its lead over Cruise, the Google-backed self-driving company may end up coming out on top.

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