During a Tuesday hearing on whether robotaxi company Cruise misled California regulators about a San Francisco incident where a self-driving car dragged a woman under its tires, a judge compared the company to the notoriously insincere “Leave It to Beaver” character Eddie Haskell.
“It’s like someone who has the facts and stands there and doesn’t provide the facts, and it’s shame on you for not asking for the facts,” Administrative Law Judge Robert Mason said about the company’s communications with regulators.
It was just one of a number of pointed questions and comments directed at the embattled and chastened General Motors subsidiary, once seen as a leader in the multibillion-dollar race to commercialize autonomous vehicles.
The hearing was held to weigh the merits of a settlement offer posed by the company over charges it was not forthcoming with regulators after the Oct. 2 incident, where one of its cars dragged a woman underneath its wheels for 20 feet after she was struck by a human-operated vehicle.
Cruise executives acknowledged Tuesday the company’s robotaxi lacked a sensor underneath the vehicle to discern if something had gone under the chassis.
The hearing took place a mere six months after Cruise received the green light, along with its competitor Waymo, from the California Public Utilities Commission to operate its driverless robotaxis everywhere in San Francisco, around the clock and charge for fares.
Judge tells Cruise: ‘Take the hint’
State regulators have found the company could be liable for up to $1.5 million in penalties for failing to provide complete information and putting out misleading public statements on the incident. In response, Cruise has proposed a settlement that would include a $75,000 payment and more data-sharing around collisions and the pullover maneuver that led to the dragging.
Mason expressed skepticism of the proposed settlement, calling the monetary amount “a discount” and asking the company to “take the hint” in coming up with a higher offer. He also noted that the data that the company offered to produce proactively is in line with existing state requirements, although it eliminates the step of data requests on the part of regulators.
Cruise remains under investigation by regulators including the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which is looking into a separate incident where a robotaxi nearly hit a 7-year-old boy in San Francisco.
At the hearing, additional details were also provided about the departure of former CEO and co-founder Kyle Vogt.
Craig Glidden, the current president and chief administrative officer at Cruise, said that although Vogt was not fired in the direct aftermath of the dragging incident, he tendered his resignation soon after a board meeting where Glidden was given responsibility over a wide swath of business functions.
Soon after the Oct. 2 dragging incident, the company lost its permit to operate from state officials. The accident kicked off a string of additional challenges for Cruise, including the elimination of nearly a quarter of the company’s staff, the firing or resignation of several top executives and the decision by General Motors to pull the entire fleet of Cruise vehicles off the roads nationally.
A ‘siege mentality’
Heavily referenced in both the proposed settlement motion and during Tuesday’s hearing was an independent investigation by law firm Quinn Emanuel. The firm was commissioned by Cruise to look into the issues that led up to the dragging incident and whether company representatives misled regulators about what happened afterward.
The report concluded that Cruise employees did not seek to intentionally mislead regulators about the Oct. 2 incident.
However, it did identify a number of critical issues at the company, including “poor leadership, mistakes in judgment, lack of coordination, and an ‘us versus them’ mentality with regulators, and a fundamental misapprehension of Cruise’s obligations of accountability and transparency to the government and the public.”
According to Quinn Emanuel partner John Potter, Cruise had what he characterized as a “siege mentality” because “the company legitimately felt it was not getting the fair shake by the media.”
That, along with employees’ belief that their obligations to media were different than to regulatory disclosures, led them to decide against updating press statements to correct the public record.
Mason noted that even if the company did not intend to mislead regulators, there is still a potential for violation, particularly if previous records are not corrected or new information is not shared.
“Offering to show a video is not the same as notifying [public utilities] commission staff,” Mason said.
The day after the incident occurred, Cruise had four separate meetings with local, state and federal officials during which the company showed regulators video footage recorded by its vehicle. Potter said at the hearing that internet connectivity challenges plagued the first three meetings, leading to issues viewing the video.
Potter said although the Cruise representative in the meetings was aware of the pullover maneuver and dragging, he relied on outdated talking points prepared by the company that did not clearly specify what happened.
During the fourth meeting, which was held with San Francisco first responders and transit officials, the video played clearly and led to a prolonged discussion on the robotaxi’s maneuvers after the woman was thrown into its path.
“There should have been an affirmative declaration that the car performed a pullover maneuver and dragged the pedestrian,” Potter said. “He knew, and he should have told the regulators on that occasion.”
Assembled Cruise representatives agreed with the assessment at the hearing.
Glidden said at the hearing that Cruise has taken corrective actions in the wake of the dragging incident, including hiring outside experts to examine root causes, voluntarily grounding its fleet and removing leaders in a bid to rebuild trust.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra has said the company plans for a more measured rollout of robotaxis in a single market later this year.