Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said publicly today that San Francisco has proved to be “one of the most challenging markets in the country,” and that the company is “influenced heavily by what happens in San Francisco.”
The remarks, which were made in front of hundreds of tech enthusiasts at TechCrunch Disrupt 2023, an annual conference for tech startups, were the most significant public comments given by the autonomous vehicle executive since August, when Cruise and its rival, Waymo, gained authorization to ferry paying passengers in robotaxis across San Francisco.
That victory was tempered, however, as Cruise then cut its self-driving car fleet in half in San Francisco at the behest of the California Department of Motor Vehicles. That happened after several highly publicized incidents of cars behaving badly, including one in which a fire engine slammed into a Cruise vehicle that had stopped in the middle of an intersection.
Just this week, San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu asked state regulators to reconsider their decision for both Cruise, which is owned by General Motors, and Waymo, which is owned by Alphabet. Chiu said he was concerned that the companies are “not yet capable of safely operating in our complex transportation environment.”
While nobody in city government expects a different outcome in front of the same adjudicating body, the motion was a necessary step for the city to take in exhausting its legal remedies — and filing any future lawsuit.
Vogt, however, stuck to his guns today, saying that cities like San Francisco should be “rolling out the red carpet” for self-driving cars “if we’re serious about safety.”
“We cannot expect perfection; there still will be collisions,” added Vogt. “Because we’re out there having the most miles and the most vehicles … so, I see this as the beginning of a conversation with regulators, with city officials, on the reality that these vehicles are here.”
He has been less circumspect with shareholders. In a July 25 earnings call for General Motors, when asked “How many AVs would it take to blanket a city like San Francisco to have a disruptive service similar to Uber?” Vogt replied that “there’s capacity to absorb several thousand per city, at minimum.” That would have been at least a tenfold increase for Cruise at the time, which had a fleet of some 300 vehicles in San Francisco.
When asked similar questions today, Vogt answered that he had no specific figures to offer.
Vogt also said that Cruise might leave San Francisco altogether, if its permit is revoked by the state. “Well, if it gets to that point, we can have that discussion,” said Vogt.
The CEO also took aim at California’s regulatory environment, saying the state “has a longer process” than other states, like Texas. The company is testing in Austin, which Vogt described as Cruise’s “tip of the spear,” and said it accommodated some of the company’s early testing. “The regulatory environment is more streamlined, compared to San Francisco or California.”
Cruise is currently operating in 15 cities, Vogt added, saying the cities “that are ready and willing to have this technology will get it first.”
In August, Cruise, along with Waymo, won unfettered access to San Francisco streets for their driverless cars. The California Public Utilities Commission granted them the green light, despite concerns from the city’s fire and police departments about autonomous vehicles impeding their personnel and equipment. The San Francisco Fire Department had, by then, logged 55 “unusual occurrences” in which robotaxis interfered with emergency vehicles or personnel.
Just eight days later, the DMV cut Cruise’s fleet in half, allowing them 50 vehicles during the day and 150 at night.
Earlier this month, Vogt defended his fleet’s performance in San Francisco in an interview with the Washington Post, saying, “anything that we do differently than humans is being sensationalized.”
Still, pushback continues from elected officials. Yesterday, Rep. Nancy Pelosi urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency, to collect more data on Cruise and Waymo’s operations in San Francisco because of “serious safety concerns.”
Vogt, for his part, said today that Cruise already shares that safety data.
“That safety data they’re asking for, we already do report. We’re compliant with all regulations. So both the state and the federal government have access to crash data. And it’s that same data that tells the story showing AVs are beating humans on the most important metric, which is safety,” Vogt said.
And, despite the pushback, Vogt seemed confident in the future of autonomous vehicles profiting as competitors to Uber and Lyft in the rideshare market.
“Looking at ride-hail as it exists today, it is a luxury good. You are paying for a timeshare of a human driven chauffeur,” he said, predicting that rideshare prices would increase in the coming years. For self-driving cars, on the other hand, “In a couple years’ time. We expect [the price] to drop substantially.”