Nov 27, 2023 - Technology

How self-driving cars can gain the public's trust

Illustration of a question mark made with a car tire

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Better transparency and tighter rules could improve public trust in self-driving cars amid safety concerns involving Cruise robotaxis, experts tell Axios.

Why it matters: The big promise of autonomous vehicles (AVs) is that they could make transportation safer and more accessible for everyone.

  • But robotaxis are being tested and deployed in cities without residents' explicit consent, and without much oversight.
  • So when problems occur, as in the case of Cruise, public acceptance becomes that much harder.

Catch up quick: General Motors-owned Cruise pulled its entire U.S. fleet of 950 driverless cars off the road after a San Francisco pedestrian was struck by a human-driven vehicle and then run over by a nearby Cruise robotaxi.

  • Cruise faces heightened scrutiny because California officials claim the company didn't fully disclose video footage of the accident. (Cruise says it did share the entire video.)
  • Several investigations are underway, and GM has dispatched two executives to oversee Cruise after co-founders Kyle Vogt and Daniel Kan resigned.
  • Cruise is now plotting a slow return to service as it works to regain public confidence.

The big picture: Other AV companies are forging ahead with their own deployments and testing, generally dismissing Cruise's woes as the self-inflicted wounds of a company that tried to scale too quickly, before its technology was ready.

  • On Nov. 21, Hyundai and AV developer Motional opened a new facility in Singapore that will produce Ioniq 5 robotaxis for planned deployment in Las Vegas and other U.S. cities starting next year.
  • Alphabet subsidiary Waymo recently partnered with Uber to offer driverless rides in metro Phoenix.
    • In San Francisco, Waymo continues to expand access to its Waymo One driverless ride-hailing service.
    • It's also gradually ramping up service in Los Angeles, and is testing robotaxis with safety drivers in Austin.
  • May Mobility, backed by Toyota and BMW, just raised $105 million to expand its on-demand driverless transit shuttles in a handful of cities in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota and Texas.
  • And several autonomous trucking companies, including Aurora, Torc Robotics, Plus and Kodiak, expect driverless deployment in the next couple of years.

What they're saying: "The first rule of this space is that there are no shortcuts to achieve safe AV rollouts," former Waymo CEO John Krafcik tells Axios.

  • "With technology as important as this one, we've always thought we need to make sure we launch with care and consideration so that it gains traction, that the technology endures, and that it delivers its full potential to the world."

Of note: Waymo, a self-driving pioneer, has sometimes been criticized for its slow growth. Yet it's been involved in far fewer incidents than Cruise, based on what limited reporting is required by California and federal regulators.

  • Waymo's first driverless trip, taken by a blind man going to the doctor, took place in Austin in October 2015.
  • Waymo spent five years on further testing before launching its first paid driverless service — in Chandler, Arizona — and several more years before expanding that service across metro Phoenix.
  • Cruise, acquired by GM for $1 billion in 2016, has been working on self-driving technology for a decade too. But its ambitions have accelerated rapidly since its first driverless trip in November 2021, in San Francisco.

Where it stands: In a July call with GM investors, Vogt touted Cruise's "exponential growth" trajectory, with plans to expand to up to 14 cities and reach $1 billion in annual revenue by 2025, and $50 billion by 2030.

  • All that's on hold for now, although CEO Mary Barra says GM remains fully committed to autonomous technology.
  • GM's Super Cruise driver-assist feature, for example, is coming to a wide range of models, and Barra says self-driving cars for personal use could be available "by mid-decade."
  • Whether Cruise is folded into GM or hires a new CEO — perhaps even Barra herself — remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the entire AV industry is grappling with the challenge of winning public acceptance.

  • Both Cruise and Waymo have published studies claiming to show that their driverless vehicles are safer than human drivers.
  • But safety experts say their research is flawed because it relies on limited or skewed data.
  • "There are lots of claims but not a lot of evidence," says Shaun Kildare, senior research director for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

"The way you build trust is to be transparent," says Advocates president Cathy Chase.

  • She says AV companies should be candid: "'These are the limitations of the vehicle. These are our concerns. This is what we're trying to overcome." But Chase says, "We don't see that."
  • "It's not about blame," echoes Edwin Olson, CEO of May Mobility. "It's about learning" what improvements are needed.

The bottom line: Like human drivers, self-driving technology will never be perfect — but people could come to trust it more if they better understood its failings.

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