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Cruise imploded in 2023. Can the robotaxi industry recover in the new year?

A Cruise vehicle, which is a driverless, autonomous robotaxi, at a stoplight during the day in San Francisco.
A Cruise self-driving car undergoes testing in San Francisco's SoMa district in February. | Source: Hapabapa/Getty Images

The robotaxi revolution had its Icarus moment in 2023.

In August, California regulators gave the go-ahead to allow General Motors’ Cruise and Alphabet’s Waymo to send their driverless vehicles onto the roads of San Francisco 24/7, collecting fares for rides. Proponents heralded the moment as a breakthrough that took years of research and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Even if some of the robotaxis haplessly drove into wet concrete or were disabled by activists lobbing traffic cones, evangelists felt vindicated in their belief that a future with no human-operated cars was nigh.

“It was clear they were juggernauts, and there wasn't much that anyone could say or do that was going to change that,” Phil Koopman, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University specializing in autonomous vehicle safety, told The Standard. “The question was: Would they scale slow enough to keep certain things under control, or would they be too aggressive?”

A crowd of about a hundred people stand in front of a stuck Cruise car
People look at a Cruise car stuck on 30th Avenue after Day 1 of Outside Lands, just a day after regulators gave Cruise the go-ahead to operate 24/7 in the city. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

But less than two months later, Cruise suffered a system breakdown. Two days into October, a woman was dragged about 20 feet by a Cruise vehicle after she was struck by a human-operated vehicle. The California Department of Motor Vehicles said that the company withheld video footage of the incident, prompting the agency to suspend Cruise’s permit. Shortly after, Cruise—which had also been operating in Austin and Phoenix and had plans to expand to Nashville, Miami and other large cities—pulled its entire fleet nationwide. Cruise is currently in the crosshairs of federal, state and local officials.

With this tumultuous year in the rearview and a pall hanging over the industry, what will happen to robotaxis next year? The Standard interviewed four autonomous vehicle experts for their predictions about how the industry will fare in 2024 as it tries to move past Cruise’s screw-ups.

Waymo Takes the Lead, But Will It Last?

With most of the scrutiny on Cruise, Waymo is exiting 2023 pretty much unscathed and still growing. The company has been conducting trials in Los Angeles and Austin.

Waymo, which has been operating in Phoenix since 2018, recently expanded its services there to transport passengers to and from the airport. Insider Intelligence Senior Analyst Gadjo Sevilla considers it “an expansion that also addresses a growing need for access to reliable and legitimate taxi services in busy airports.” 

As of November, though, Waymo said it had no immediate plans to start serving San Francisco International Airport.   

A Waymo is on the road in front of San Francisco City Hall. Another gray sedan is also visible on the left-bottom side of the photo
A Waymo car drives past City Hall in San Francisco. Waymo elided most of the criticism lobbed at Cruise in 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Alain Kornhauser, an operations research and financial engineering professor at Princeton University, expressed wariness about Waymo’s airport ambitions. Instead, he suggested, the company should focus on where it is uniquely positioned to supplement existing transportation systems. 

“There are other people that can get people to the airport,” he scoffed. “The Uber and Lyft drivers can do that, OK?”

Waymo published a report this month highlighting what it says is the safety of its technology compared with human-operated vehicles. Among the statistics it boasted: Seven million miles of rider-only trips, 1.76 million of which were in San Francisco, with a 70% reduction in crash rates reported to police compared with human drivers over the same number of miles. The company claims to be “scaling responsibly.” 

Still, Koopman, the Carnegie Mellon professor, said that it’s only a matter of time before Waymo will reckon with some unforeseen incident.

“Eventually, Waymo is going to have the crash, and it's gonna blow back on them just like it did Cruise,” Koopman said. “Because if you overhype and act in an untrustworthy way, the loss of trust, it can be catastrophic.”

Cruise May Look To Find a Mate

With Cruise’s disastrous year coming to an end, it doesn’t take an autonomous vehicle expert to see that the company is in a rough spot going into 2024. Three of the four experts surveyed by The Standard don’t think driverless Cruise vehicles will make it back onto San Francisco streets in 2024.

Following the October accident, Cruise’s co-founders—CEO Kyle Vogt and Chief Product Officer Dan Kan—left the company in November. At least nine other executives followed. The company also laid off around 900 employees, or about a quarter of its staff, this month. An internal investigation is ongoing.

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

The changes come as Cruise reorients its efforts toward “operating with the highest standards when it comes to safety, integrity and accountability,” as a company spokesperson said. The company anticipates it will relaunch in a smaller city after its problems in San Francisco.

Billy Riggs, a University of San Francisco professor and director of the school’s Autonomous Vehicles and the City Initiative, said he wouldn’t count the GM subsidiary out just yet. 

“Point blank, Cruise will survive and successfully relaunch, but they will need to reduce their cash burn rate and take on more funding within the year,” Riggs said.

Riggs suggested that Cruise find a new corporate mate—perhaps Lyft—like Waymo did with Uber. In October, the pair launched a program that lets passengers hail Waymo vehicles on the much more popular Uber app. That should reduce the cost of acquiring customers while having an established partner in the transportation space.

Cruise will also have to adapt to GM reducing funding, however, and strategize to ensure that its remaining cash—around $1.7 billion as of Sept. 30—will last.

Zoox Will Roll Out (Slowly)

Zoox has not been in conversations much, despite its cars traversing San Francisco streets with human drivers at the wheel. Given Cruise’s fumbles in 2023, the Amazon-owned competitor could out-lap Cruise—but any grand expectations should be tempered. 

A black SUV with a Zoox logo on the left front door drives on Lombard Street as pedestrians watch.
A Zoox autonomous vehicle on a test drive through Lombard Street. Experts say Zoox will have a modest 2024. | Source: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Currently, it has small test fleets in San Francisco, Seattle and Las Vegas—and secured approval from the California DMV to test its fully autonomous robotaxi (similar to Cruise’s halted Origin vehicle) around the company’s Foster City headquarters. Only Zoox employees are able to access those rides.

“[W]e should also keep an eye out for other emerging competitors, such as Zoox or others that may enter the market,” Riggs said.

Sevilla is skeptical that Zoox’s technology is up to snuff for “busy city centers” like San Francisco but anticipates that it could gain some traction in smaller cities.  

Robotrucks May Zoom Quietly Ahead

While robotaxis dominated the headlines in 2023 and captured people’s imaginations, for better or worse, advancements in robotrucking quietly emerged—and they are worth watching in the new year.

“Autonomous and driverless technology might see faster adoption outside of robotaxis,” Sevilla said, pointing out that highway-operated self-driving trucks primarily stay in a single lane at a fixed speed. 

Autonomous trucking technology got a major boost in 2023 from California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who vetoed a bill that would have mandated a human at the wheel in driverless trucks. At the time, he said that existing law was sufficient to regulate such products.

Riggs pointed to local autonomous truck firms Aurora and Gatik, which set up driverless technology on semi-trucks and box trucks, respectively, as ones that will be “accelerating their business” next year. 

Sevilla pointed to trucking stalwart Maersk’s partnership with Mountain View firm Kodiak on the “first commercial autonomous trucking lane between Houston and Oklahoma City” to transport 53-foot trailers between the two cities. (A safety driver is still present on these rides.)

The Messaging Will Change

In July, Cruise launched a blitz of messaging—full-page ads in the print New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers. “Humans are terrible drivers,” the ad copy read, citing a statistic about the number of Americans killed in car crashes each year.

In the wake of the October dragging incident, conventional hindsight pointed to the PR campaign as proof of Cruise’s smug sense of superiority. Cruise has since vowed to change course, now emphasizing that it will work more closely with communities rather than foist its tech “at them,” while promising to double down on its safety measures.

Waymo would be wise to do the same, Koopman said, adding that any argument about the technology “already saving lives” is premature.

“It all sounds great until the day you read the bad news. Safety isn't about the good mile; safety is about the one bad mile,” Koopman said. “You go 99 million miles good miles and one bad mile, and the one bad mile is the one that’s in the news.”

Part of that, Kornhauser said, is heightened transparency from Cruise and Waymo. “They have to be open; they can't cover stuff up,” he said. “Nothing's perfect, and … I don't think anybody's holding anybody to perfection.”

Beyond safety promises, Kornhauser emphasized that Waymo and other autonomous vehicle firms hoping to roll their products out on San Francisco streets should refocus their community efforts.

“They need to see what business they're in, who their customers are and what their customers need,” Kornhauser said. “It's mobility for the folks that really need it, when they need it, to improve the quality of life in San Francisco.”