The year is ending on a much different note for self-driving cars than it began: NPR | Trending Viral hub

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This year started with hype for self-driving car companies, but it’s ending with trouble, especially at GM’s Cruise.



ALINA SELYUKH, PRESENTER:

This year was meant to be the year of the driverless car. And indeed, hundreds of robotaxis were unleashed on the streets of San Francisco. But then, for one company, things took a disastrous turn. NPR’s Dara Kerr reports.

DARA KERR, BYLINE: The first time General Motors CEO Mary Barra rode in a driverless car, she felt dizzy.

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MARY BARRA: Oh my God (laughter).

KERR: That’s her in a video from the trip. GM had made a big bet on autonomous vehicles by purchasing startup Cruise in 2016. Since then, it has invested billions.

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BARRA: You know, a lot of people have asked me, well, how are you going to get people to use it? It’s like, okay, we were in the vehicle for five minutes and the trust is there.

KERR: The trust was there. California had granted hundreds of permits to Cruise and its main competitor, Google-owned Waymo. And this year, for the first time, both companies were allowed to operate as taxis 24/7, taking people without a driver behind the wheel. Top company executives promised that their cars were safer than human drivers and that San Francisco was ready for them.

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KYLE VOGT: We’re on a trajectory that most companies dream of, which is exponential growth.

KERR: That’s Cruise CEO and co-founder Kyle Vogt speaking to investors. He said San Francisco could, quote, “absorb thousands of its self-driving cars.” But as more robotaxis covered the city, things got complicated. Protests broke out. San Francisco City Supervisor Shamann Walton spoke at a rally outside Cruise’s headquarters.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAMANN WALTON: The cruise…

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: They lose.

WALTON: Cruise…

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: They lose.

WALTON: Excuse me. We need real people behind the wheel with a pulse and brains who know how to maneuver in difficult situations.

KERR: There were many difficult situations. Driverless cars collided with fire trucks and blocked bus lanes. Confused vehicles blocked dead-end streets and one ran over a dog.

PHILIP KOOPMAN: The part about we’re busy saving lives, so ignore all the mess you see: it’s over.

KERR: Philip Koopman is an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon and an expert in autonomous vehicle safety. He says all the talk about self-driving cars being perfect and better than human drivers is partly what got companies into trouble.

KOOPMAN: The narrative started to fall apart when they promised we wouldn’t make the same stupid mistakes as human drivers, and then they were caught on camera making the same stupid mistakes.

KERR: And then in October…

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #1: A woman was seriously injured after being hit by an autonomous vehicle.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #2: Rescuers found the woman trapped under the Cruise vehicle.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #3: And the fire department used the jaws of life to free her.

KERR: The pedestrian suffered life-threatening injuries. Experts say the series of unfortunate events could be attributed to the Cruise company moving too quickly. Missy Cummings directs the Center for Autonomy and Robotics at George Mason University.

MISSY CUMMINGS: They were late to the self-driving car party, so Cruise had a lot of catching up to do in a short period of time.

KERR: Cummings says that even before the pedestrian incident, there were signs that Cruise was headed for disaster because he wasn’t slowing down and addressing all the other mishaps.

CUMMINGS: They were the bull in the china shop. They continued advancing. When we sat down and discussed who was going to have the worst accident in that crowd, everyone knew it was going to be Cruise.

KERR: After the pedestrian incident, things got even worse for Cruise. California state regulators say the company left out crucial details about what exactly happened. They say Cruise gave them video that did not show footage of the car dragging the pedestrian another 20 feet before stopping on top of her. Regulators say it took Cruise two weeks to turn over the entire video. Here’s Philip Koopman from Carnegie Mellon again.

KOOPMAN: If a human driver, God forbid, has hit a pedestrian and you don’t see the pedestrian, before you move your car, you will find out where the pedestrian is. Because you know there’s a pedestrian somewhere and the last thing you want to do is walk over them. But that’s exactly what the Cruise vehicle did.

KERR: Now Cruise has lost his operating permits. He faces fines and government investigations. The company says it is working to rebuild trust. It has grounded all of its self-driving cars. And CEO Kyle Vogt is gone. Parent company GM says it still supports Cruise. But CEO Mary Barra is reining in some of her initial enthusiasm. She is cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in Cruise’s funding.

Dara Kerr, NPR News.

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