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Cruise’s robotaxi revolution is hitting the gas in San Francisco

A Cruise vehicle named Funnel Cake waits for passengers to board in San Francisco on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

It’s hard to explain the feeling when a Cruise vehicle pulls up to pick you up with no one in the driver’s seat. 

There’s a bit of apprehension, a bit of wonder, a bit of: “Is this actually happening?” 

And in my case, there was a bit of a walk as the car came to a stop across the street from our chosen pickup point in Pacific Heights. The roughly half-hour drive to the Outer Richmond (paid for by Cruise) made me feel like I was in the hands of an incredibly cautious student driver, complete with nervous, premature stops, a 25 mph speed limit and no right turns on red lights.

Judging by the folks flipping out their phones to film—and a few excited “woos” from tipsy bar patrons as I made my way across the city in a modified Chevy Bolt named Funnel Cake—these robotaxis remain a bit of a novelty. But they’re on the cusp of going mainstream, particularly in the self-driving gauntlet of San Francisco. 

Funnel Cake the Cruise car's steering wheel turns by itself in San Francisco on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

How the robotaxi industry will make that jump has come into sharper focus. What was initially a relatively crowded space has whittled down to just a few companies jockeying to dominate the future of taxis.

Cruise, owned by General Motors, recently announced that it will be rolling out limited daytime service and expanded nighttime service of its robotaxis to the general public “in the coming months.” It is also seeking permission from regulators to test a shuttle in San Francisco with no steering wheel or manual controls, according to the Wall Street Journal.

One of its leading competitors, Alphabet subsidiary Waymo, also recently won approval to carry passengers without a safety driver under a new pilot program expected to launch soon in San Francisco. 

Others haven’t fared so well. Ford and Volkswagen killed their autonomous vehicle joint venture Argo AI in October, reporting billions in losses in the process. Cruise itself has lost nearly $5 billion since 2018, and Alphabet has come under pressure from activist investors because of Waymo’s growing losses.

But the companies’ ambitions are big, too. Currently, Cruise operates around 300 vehicles around the country, including 100 that offer driverless service in San Francisco, and it plans to expand operations to Austin and Phoenix. Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt believes the company can hit $1 billion in annual revenue by 2025.

Cruise's iPhone app displaying the wait time for one if its cars in San Francisco on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

But there are serious roadblocks, not least skepticism by San Francisco’s government. The city’s transit officials have issued harsh critiques of Cruise, noting issues with disabled access and viral incidents where vehicles stopped in the middle of the street and blocked lanes.

Prashanthi Raman, Cruise’s vice president of global government affairs, attributed some of these issues to the company’s overriding focus on safety.

“That means if our cars encounter a situation where they aren’t able to safely proceed, we stop, turn on our hazards and try to get operating again or pick them up as soon as possible,” Raman said. 

She also underscored that under state law, Cruise vehicles are allowed to double park for a limited amount of time as a commercial vehicle. In my experience, the vehicle had a bit of difficulty pulling parallel to the curb, often ending up in a 45-degree angle. 

On the accessibility front, Raman said the company’s next-generation Origin shuttle is being designed with people with disabilities in mind and will include a universal anchoring system for fixed wheelchairs. The Wall Street Journal reported that Cruise has submitted an application to the California DMV to test Origin, which has no steering wheel or manual controls, in a limited capacity in San Francisco, initially without passengers. 

Raman, who joined Cruise after working on government relations at Lyft, said the company is “in a trust race as much as a tech race” in trying to commercialize its service. She drew distinctions between the rollout of Cruise’s robotaxis and rapid expansion strategy undertaken by rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft.

“Especially in our fleet model, we have to build sustainable infrastructure,” Raman said. “That’s why you see, even in San Francisco, we’re starting small and expanding from there.”

Funnel Cake the Cruise car glides down the street with one of its sensors in view in San Francisco on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2022. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

In California, robotaxi companies like Cruise are jointly regulated by the DMV and California Public Utilities Commission, meaning San Francisco officials have minimal control over service expansions. Local leaders are often left with little recourse other than lobbying state and federal regulators to boost oversight and reporting requirements. 

There are other regulatory quirks: For example, local officials have determined that the vehicles can’t be cited for moving violations.

For their part, Raman said she and other Cruise representatives are in constant conversations with city agencies and aim to “launch with communities, rather than at them.” She said the company is pushing for more uniform regulations across jurisdictions.

“Conversations will always happen at the local level, but in order to create that uniformity and lack of patchwork, the policymaking and legislation really needs to exist at the state and federal level,” Raman said. 

During my Cruise ride, a group of young people darted out in front of the vehicle to get it to stop, with one person lunging repeatedly at Funnel Cake in an apparent attempt to brake check the vehicle.  

This is apparently common: Cruise’s CEO has shared videos of similar shenanigans as a shaming mechanism.

One of the screens inside the Cruise vehicle showing the car's route in San Francisco on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

But my own ride went off largely without a hitch—until about two blocks away from the destination, when a big rig put its hazards on to deliver some merchandise.

Funnel Cake wavered on what to do, appearing to think about going around the truck before stopping. One of the delivery workers came out to motion that we should go around, only to be greeted by an empty driver’s seat. 

I rolled my window down, and he looked at me quizzically as the tablet attached to the driverless driver’s seat read that some faraway “Sam” was calculating a different route. I shrugged as the car figured it out and eventually went around the truck.

Those sort of hiccups are par for the course. What was more surprising is eventually how normal the experience became as we trudged along. I turned the radio to Cyndi Lauper, played trivia on the tablet and pondered the fact that on the road to public adoption of robotaxis, mundanity is far more important than excitement. 

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the number of Cruise cars that offer driverless cars in San Francisco.