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The year is ending on a very different note for driverless cars than how it started

ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:

This year was meant to be the year of the driverless car. And indeed, hundreds of robotaxis were unleashed on San Francisco streets. But then, for one company, things took a disastrous turn. NPR's Dara Kerr reports.

DARA KERR, BYLINE: The first time General Motors CEO Mary Barra rode in a driverless car, she was giddy.

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MARY BARRA: Oh, my God (laughter).

KERR: That's her in a video of the ride. GM had made a big bet on self-driving cars by buying the startup Cruise in 2016. It's since invested billions.

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BARRA: You know, a lot of people have asked me, well, how are you going to get people to use it? It's like, OK, we were in the vehicle for five minutes, and the trust is there.

KERR: The trust was there. California had handed out hundreds of permits to Cruise and its main competitor, Waymo, which is owned by Google. And this year, for the first time, both companies were allowed to operate like taxis 24/7, giving rides to people with no driver at the wheel. Top executives at the companies pledged their cars were safer than human drivers and that San Francisco was ready for them.

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KYLE VOGT: We're on a trajectory that most businesses dream of, which is exponential growth.

KERR: That's Cruise CEO and co-founder Kyle Vogt, speaking to investors. He said San Francisco could, quote, "absorb thousands of its driverless cars." But as more robotaxis blanketed the city, things got messy. Protests broke out. San Francisco city supervisor Shamann Walton spoke at one in front of Cruise's headquarters.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Yay.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAMANN WALTON: Cruise will...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Lose.

WALTON: Cruise will...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Lose.

WALTON: Pardon me. We need actual people behind the wheel with a pulse and the brains that know how to maneuver in sticky situations.

KERR: There were a lot of sticky situations. Driverless cars collided with fire trucks and blocked bus lanes. Confused vehicles clogged dead-end streets, and one ran over a dog.

PHILIP KOOPMAN: The part about we're busy saving lives, so ignore all the mess you see - it has run its course.

KERR: Philip Koopman is an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon and an expert in self-driving car safety. He says all the talk around driverless cars being perfect and better than human drivers is partially what got the companies in trouble.

KOOPMAN: The narrative started to unravel when they promised we wouldn't make the same stupid mistakes as human drivers, and then they got caught on camera making the same stupid mistakes.

KERR: And then, in October...

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #1: A woman has been seriously injured after being hit by an autonomous vehicle.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #2: Rescuers found the woman trapped under the Cruise vehicle.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #3: And the fire department used the jaws of life to free her.

KERR: The pedestrian had life-threatening injuries. Experts say the series of unfortunate events could be blamed on the company Cruise moving too quickly. Missy Cummings runs the Autonomy and Robotics Center at George Mason University.

MISSY CUMMINGS: They were late to the self-driving car party, and so Cruise had to do a lot of catch-up in a short period of time.

KERR: Cummings says even before the pedestrian incident, there were signs Cruise was headed for disaster because it wasn't slowing down and addressing all the other mishaps.

CUMMINGS: They were the bull in the china shop. They just kept charging ahead. When we sat around and discussed who was going to have the worst accident in that crowd, everyone knew it was going to be Cruise.

KERR: After the pedestrian incident, things got even worse for Cruise. California state regulators say the company left out crucial details about what exactly happened. They say Cruise gave them a video which did not show footage of the car dragging the pedestrian an additional 20 feet before stopping on top of her. Regulators say it took Cruise two weeks to hand over the entire video. Here's Carnegie Mellon's Philip Koopman again.

KOOPMAN: If a human driver, heaven forbid, has hit a pedestrian and you don't see the pedestrian, before you move your car, you're going to find out where the pedestrian is. 'Cause you know there's a pedestrian someplace, and the last thing you want to do is be driving over them. But that's exactly what the Cruise vehicle did.

KERR: Now, Cruise has lost its operating permits. It's facing fines and government investigations. The company says it's working to rebuild trust. It's grounded all of its driverless cars. And CEO Kyle Vogt is gone. Parent company GM says it still supports Cruise. But CEO Mary Barra is reining in some of her initial excitement. She's cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in Cruise's funding.

Dara Kerr, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.