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How Cruise secured support from local groups as it pushed to expand robotaxis

A group of picketers.
Local labor organizers from the Service Employees International Union and accessibility leaders hold a press conference in support of autonomous vehicles outside the California Public Utilities Commission building in San Francisco. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

When Cruise appeared in front of the California Public Utilities Commission in August seeking approval for an unlimited expansion of its robotaxi service in San Francisco, the scene was thick with yellow-shirted supporters of the nascent autonomous vehicle industry. 

The General Motors-owned company had been preparing for the moment for months. It secured nearly 40 letters of support from a broad coalition of disability groups, local business associations, elected officials and private citizens.

They all followed a similar pattern, emphasizing Cruise’s arguments for expansion: More traffic to San Francisco businesses, safer roads and more autonomy for people who don’t drive, like people with disabilities and senior citizens.

“Through engagement with our organization and other diverse communities, Cruise has clearly demonstrated how their service benefits our businesses’ customers and employees,” one letter from the Fillmore Merchants Association read. “Expanding Cruise’s service will also expand access to our neighborhood and our small businesses.”

But these shows of support were not wholly organic. In many cases, Cruise had courted these groups, holding promotional events and providing financial contributions. 

The exterior driver's side of a Cruise driverless vehicle.
A Cruise driverless robot taxi rolls through an intersection in San Francisco. | Source: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Exactly how much Cruise spent on cultivating such relationships is unclear, but it was a key part of its strategy in gaining community support.

The local organizations mobilized to back Cruise, even though a number of key San Francisco agencies—including the fire department and the transportation agency—vehemently opposed giving Cruise the go-ahead to operate driverless taxis across the city 24/7, saying the technology was “not ready for prime time.”  

Seemingly swayed by the arguments of Cruise, its competitor Waymo and their supporters, the state utilities commission gave a green light. 

But in the following months, significant safety incidents would emerge.

Less than three months later, the California Department of Motor Vehicles would suspend Cruise’s permit to operate in San Francisco after a pedestrian was dragged nearly 20 feet by a Cruise car after being struck by a driver-operated vehicle in October—the most harrowing incident in a long string of woes for the driverless car company this year.

Cruise would go on to pull its fleet nationwide days later.

The October incident was followed by a rash of reports about how the company jeopardized safety at the expense of faster growth, the resignation of co-founders Kyle Vogt and Dan Kan and, more recently, a judge levying up to a $1.5 million fine on Cruise for hiding footage of the accident from state authorities. (A hearing in February will determine if Cruise misled regulators.)

A man in a blue jacket speaks onstage at a conference.
Former Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt 2023 at Moscone Center. | Source: Kimberly White/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Now, the company’s future remains uncertain.

If it is to return to San Francisco, it will need allies wherever it can find them. Many of the organizations that lent support to Cruise earlier this year still say they want Cruise to return or would encourage a bid to return to the city.

“Cruise has engaged many local organizations in our goal of building a safer, more accessible transportation future,” a Cruise spokesperson told The Standard. “We appreciate the support we have received, and also understand we need to rebuild trust with some partners as we work towards a better Cruise.”

In light of the more recent information, The Standard reached out to the authors of those letters of support to see whether their public statements underscoring Cruise’s benefits still held true. 

Only three decided to reverse their initial positions. The vast majority of signatories that responded held steadfast, and their responses illuminated the process of how Cruise sought these advocacy groups out in the first place.

‘A Bit Slanted’

Thirty-two letters were filed by pro-business groups, lawmakers and nonprofit organizations not explicitly linked to Cruise—effectively throwing the weight of their reputations in support of the company. 

University of California Berkeley Law Professor Colleen Chien said in lobbying a regulator like the state utilities commission, “it’s a well-known practice in regulatory settings” for well-oiled corporations like Cruise “to try to organize the community’s response and to provide a lot of support including template letters to encourage them to engage in the process.” 

Chien said that regulators look carefully at community letters to evaluate their content—letters that read too similarly or are written verbatim from a template, for example, may carry less weight than an original, research-laden letter.

“The letters can be quite influential, but it really will depend on the overall context,” Chien said.

Of the 32 entities that supported Cruise with letters, 13 responded to The Standard’s request for comment.

Eight of them expressed renewed support of Cruise’s services returning to San Francisco, and some even took aim at the media coverage surrounding the event and Cruise’s recent foibles. Two declined to comment, and another did not have a comment on behalf of their organization—which is still awaiting discussion of its support for Cruise.

A group of people in purple T-shirts stand before a crowd of picketers.
Service Employees International Union Local 87 president Olga Miranda, center, and accessibility leaders hold a press conference in support of autonomous vehicles and robotaxis outside the California Public Utilities Commission building in San Francisco on Aug. 10. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Rufus Jeffris, a senior vice president at the business advocacy organization Bay Area Council, said the group’s support of Cruise remains unchanged and declined to comment on the October accident. 

“Autonomous vehicle technologies are and will continue to be an important part of our transportation future,” Jeffris wrote in an email to The Standard. 

The Bay Area Council counted Cruise as one of its sponsors for a conference held in November as part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. A Cruise representative was scheduled to speak on a panel about self-driving cars but was replaced amid heightened scrutiny of the company’s practices. After initially being invited, media members were barred from the event. 

Other organizations gave a full-throated defense for Cruise and self-driving car technology. Tim Elder, the president of the National Federation of the Blind of California, described the media coverage surrounding the October incident “a bit slanted.”

“I’ll note that this incident was caused by a human hit-and-run driver,” Elder wrote in an email to The Standard. “This incident would likely not have occurred if the vehicle that initially struck the pedestrian had been an AV.”

A person ducks into a vehicle with a seeing-eye dog.
Sharon Giovinazzo, CEO of LightHouse, a nonprofit organization for the blind and visually impaired, gets into a Waymo autonomous car with her guide dog Pilot on Aug. 7. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

The advocacy group’s national arm has previously thanked Cruise on social media for being a donor to the organization. Cruise also sponsored the organization’s initiative in 2021 called the “Blind Driver Challenge.”

Chris MacKenzie, the director of communications at left-leaning pro-business group Chamber of Progress, doubled down on a familiar Cruise talking point about the risks of human-operated cars. The Chamber of Progress lists Cruise as one of its corporate partners, meaning it offers financial support to the organization. 

“While opponents of AVs have twisted the October incident to lobby against autonomous vehicles, the reality is that human drivers remain San Francisco’s most dangerous, most deadly vehicle operators,” MacKenzie said in a statement.

Others hedged their messages of support by acknowledging some of the company’s recent challenges.

“We understand with time, research and effort that safety will eventually be optimized and the future of autonomous vehicles will resume,” said Patti Mangan, the executive director at the Fillmore Merchants Association.

She gave Cruise props for providing demos of its technology and tours of its facility, along with Cruise’s sponsorship of the group’s annual Fillmore Jazz Festival.

‘Troubled and Bothered’

Only two local organizations that filed letters of support for Cruise—the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and the Potrero Dogpatch Merchants Association—and one state lawmaker, Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley) expressed concern with its operations in the wake of the recent safety issues.

Low, who co-chairs the state’s Technology and Innovation Caucus, wrote in a statement to The Standard: “I fully support the California Department of Motor Vehicles decision to suspend the operating license for Cruise, and fully support the efforts of the California Public Utilities Commission to investigate and hold the company accountable.”

Keith Goldstein, president of the Potrero Dogpatch Merchants Association, said that Cruise pulling its entire fleet “seems appropriate,” adding that Cruise’s return to San Francisco streets will require “a renewed effort on transparency and safety.”

“I was troubled and bothered to learn of the incident involving the Cruise vehicle and especially to learn about their initial response,” Goldstein wrote. “Prior to this, they had been a good community partner and were welcomed by the Potrero Dogpatch merchant community.”

The back of an audience, with one person in a yellow shirt that reads "safer roads."
Audience members listen to members of the California Public Utilities Commission during a hearing in San Francisco on Aug. 10. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Cruise had also been embraced by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, the city’s restaurant industry group, after what Executive Director Laurie Thomas described as hope for “a cost-effective form of transportation for our employees and our customers, particularly our employees who work late in the evenings.” 

But Thomas said the group started to pull back as Cruise incidents started mounting in the city.

“We are obviously very concerned regarding safety of passengers and pedestrians, and as such we did not offer support … over the summer once the safety concerns surfaced,” Thomas said. “We hope that they can address these critical issues.”

Jill Fox, chair of the India Basin Neighborhood Association, shed light on the ways Cruise embedded itself into local organizations to draw more support.

A Cruise car drives along Market Street in San Francisco.
A driverless Cruise car named Tungsten heads down 10th Street as it crosses its intersection with Market Street in San Francisco. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

“They were very aggressive about coming out to our neighborhood and contacting us and telling us all the good things Cruise could do for us,” she said, adding that the association’s goals for more “transit alternatives” aligned with Cruise’s vision.

Fox explained that Cruise discussed support for the association’s community events, like cleanups and mural installations, or even a financial donation. But those conversations, Fox said, didn’t progress any further.

She said the India Basin Neighborhood Association board will be meeting on Monday to discuss the group’s official position on Cruise. 

“It’s disappointing that it wasn’t really what we thought it would be,” Fox said of Cruise’s involvement with the community. “It’s just disappointing, as a person, that, ‘Wow, this company wasn’t telling the truth to its regulators.’”