Skip to main content
Politics & Policy

Here’s how much robotaxi companies spent to influence California regulators

A Waymo car drives past City Hall in San Francisco on Aug. 18. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Robotaxi companies Cruise and Waymo have spent more than $2.3 million to influence state and San Francisco lawmakers since the beginning of 2021, according to dozens of lobbyist reports reviewed by The Standard.

As of Monday, Cruise and Waymo have carte blanche to charge San Francisco customers for rides at all hours of the day, thanks to an Aug. 10 decision by the CPUC. The stakes of what happens next couldn’t be bigger. In an earnings call last month, Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt told shareholders that the autonomous vehicles industry will become a “multitrillion-dollar” market.

Through interviews and lobbyist reports, The Standard tracked how Cruise and Waymo not only put skin in the game with lobbying payments but also prioritized local relationships and state capital connections to deftly orchestrate their way into making San Francisco ground zero for robotaxis—over the protests of the city’s transportation and public safety officials.

Getting signoff from the state utilities commission on 24/7 operations in San Francisco required a multiyear, multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign waged by two of the biggest companies in the world: Waymo is owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google, and Cruise is owned by General Motors. 

woman in front of waymo
A pedestrian crosses Ninth Street in San Francisco on Aug. 15 as a driverless Waymo robotaxi approaches. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Cruise spent more than $804,000 on lobbying efforts in Sacramento from the beginning of 2021 through June, according to records filed with the California Secretary of State’s Office. Meanwhile, Waymo spent more than $1.2 million in Sacramento and plunked down almost half a million dollars in the months leading up to the commission’s Aug. 10 vote. This isn’t an earth-shattering sum, but it was enough for the companies to become players in Sacramento.

A setback occurred Friday when the state Department of Motor Vehicles, which also has some regulatory authority over the companies, ordered Cruise to halve its fleet following a crash involving a fire truck that sent a Cruise passenger to the hospital. That has hardly satisfied local lawmakers, who have expressed alarm about other incidents, such as robotaxis blocking emergency responders. 

“We’ve seen plenty of these things—making illegal turns or rolling through a stop sign—and we can’t even ticket the car or send a ticket to the company, because state law doesn’t allow it,” said Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. “All these people are calling me and complaining about it, and they don’t believe it when I tell them that I have as much authority over autonomous vehicles as I do over the price of tires in Brazil.”

Chris Bonelli, a Waymo spokesperson, said the company has approximately 250 vehicles in the city, though not all are in service simultaneously. Cruise, whose fleet was reduced to 200 cars after the Friday incident, declined to answer questions for this story. Both companies have argued that data shows their vehicles have significantly lower rates of collisions than human drivers.

The City Attorney’s Office filed a motion last week to delay the state CPUC decision on robotaxis, but local officials admit that, given the companies’ successful lobbying efforts, the public outcry may be a case of too little, too late.

Capital Connections

A source with knowledge of Cruise’s lobbying efforts told The Standard that the company’s state-level strategy has been orchestrated by Jason Kinney—one of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s closest associates and the man whose birthday prompted the governor’s infamous French Laundry dinner during the pandemic.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a news conference in Sacramento on March 16. | Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

However, state lobbying records do not show Kinney or his firm, Axiom Advisors, listing Cruise or General Motors as a client. Kinney did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but political experts noted that lobbying is mostly about relationships and strategy rather than face-to-face meetings.

Records with the Secretary of State’s Office show that Cruise gave $52,400 to support Newsom’s reelection as governor in 2022. 

“[Autonomous vehicle companies] have a shit-ton of money to float around, and with Newsom involved, you better believe he’s thinking about money and something to do with running for president someday,” said David Latterman, a longtime political analyst in San Francisco. “Newsom doesn’t do anything that doesn’t involve him running for president someday.”

Cruise also had the support of a former employee during the California Public Utilities Commission’s last vote on robotaxis: John Reynolds, a former managing counsel for Cruise, now serves on the state utilities commission after a December 2021 appointment by Newsom. The commission declined to make Reynolds available for an interview, saying he could not comment on “pending issues.”

California Public Utilities Commission Commissioner John Reynolds listens to public comment during a hearing in San Francisco on Aug. 10. | Jeremy Chen/The Standard | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Peskin called Cruise’s connections to Newsom and the utilities commission an example of “regulatory capture.”

Waymo, of course, is no stranger to the lobbying game. The company actually outspent Cruise in total lobbying, and among its array of lobbyists is Platinum Advisors, which has offices in San Francisco, and Rachelle Chong, a former utilities commissioner appointed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Waymo, which already operates in Phoenix and plans to soon roll out more cars in Los Angeles and Austin, declined to release projections for how many vehicles it will have on the streets of San Francisco by 2024.

“We’ll begin to deploy more cars as we continue to match demand,” Bonelli said.

Ready for Prime Time?

Until June, Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson seemed to be the lone official in San Francisco raising a public rallying cry, saying her crews had been repeatedly impeded by robotaxis. Following the California Public Utilities Commission’s decision this month, the department issued a statement slamming autonomous vehicles as “not ready for prime time.”

Starting in April 2022, the San Francisco Fire Department began compiling reports of “unusual occurrences” involving autonomous vehicles—and no, this doesn’t include people having sex in robotaxis. Among the 58 documented incidents, robotaxis blocked first responders during emergencies and one vehicle froze on top of a fire hose. Cruise vehicles accounted for 38 of those reports, or about 65% of the issues.

People look at a Cruise car stuck on 30th Avenue after the first day of the Outside Lands festival on Aug. 11. | Jeremy Chen/The Standard | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

“We’re noticing a dramatic difference between the number of incidents involving Waymo and Cruise,” said Philip Koopman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has been working on autonomous vehicle safety for more than 25 years. “I’m not saying Waymo is perfect—their public relations and lobbying are really problematic—but the safety engineering at Waymo seems to be producing better outcomes.”

Officials for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency have sent letters of concern to the state utilities commission, but transportation director Jeffrey Tumlin and others have walked a fine line for fear of upsetting Cruise and Waymo, which are under no obligation to comply with city orders. The companies have also enlisted some heavy hitters in San Francisco to shape the local conversation.

A Contact Sport

Last year, Cruise hired David Ho and Ramneek Saini, two longtime political power brokers in San Francisco, to lobby city officials and brought on former Mayor Willie Brown as a paid advisor. Ho, who runs the firm Proverb Strategy Advisors, signed Cruise as a client in January 2022, according to filings with the San Francisco Ethics Commission. He began actively representing the firm in April of that year and has hauled in $120,000.

However, Ho has reported just one contact on Cruise’s behalf over the course of a year, meeting with Tumlin on Jan. 24.

Ho declined to comment for this story, but sources with knowledge of Cruise’s lobbying efforts said that Ho’s reporting appears incomplete, noting he had multiple contacts with City Hall officials, including Peskin and the Mayor’s Office, on the company’s behalf. These contacts were not reported to the Ethics Commission.

Saini, whose firm S2 Partners counts Treasure Island developers and labor unions among its clients, began working with Cruise in June last year. Since then, she also has reported just one contact on behalf of Cruise, a meeting in October 2022 with Planning Director Rich Hillis to discuss electric vehicle legislation. Saini, who has received $82,500 for her work with Cruise, declined to comment.

Waymo brought on local lobbyist Martha Miller and her team at Platinum Advisors for a total cost of $101,000 going back to March 2022, according to ethics filings. Her firm contacted city officials a total of six times in May 2023 regarding a proposed parking lot and garage in the Bayview. Supervisors unanimously rejected Waymo’s hopes of getting approval for the parking garage.

Self-driving cars sit in the Waymo depot lot in the Bayview in San Francisco on July 19. | Jeremy Chen/The Standard | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

“They didn’t hire these people to physically go lobby in a traditional sense,” Latterman said. “They hired them for their relationships.”

Most of Waymo’s lobbying in San Francisco has been conducted by an in-house team led by Noelle Duong, who contacted city officials 86 times going back to July 2021. The majority of these contacts involved Tumlin, the city’s transportation director, and Julia Friedlander, who oversees the city’s automated driving policy.

City transportation officials told The Standard they have focused on keeping negotiations positive due to Waymo and Cruise’s sensitivity to public criticism. In the meantime, Tumlin and others are pressing the California Public Utilities Commission to modify how data is interpreted to include unsafe behavior that goes beyond collision reports, such as incidents that stop first responders from accessing emergency scenes.

Considering the companies’ extensive connections at the state level, any rollback of robotaxis may depend on more of these incidents. Until then, San Francisco will remain firmly in the back seat and perhaps become a cautionary tale for other cities across the country.

Koopman, who has tracked autonomous vehicle technology for more than two decades at Carnegie Mellon, co-authored an academic paper that found the industry’s strategy of lobbying to win regulatory approval at the state level and ice out any attempt at local regulation could “destroy” public trust. However, he said, such actions have become commonplace in Pennsylvania, California and elsewhere.

“It’s really obvious and egregious what’s going on here,” Koopman said. “This is their standard playbook.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated in regards to robotaxis blocking emergency responders. A Cruise vehicle that initially appeared to block access to the scene of a mass shooting in the Mission was later determined to not be interfering with the emergency response and police investigation.