Every year, roughly 40,000 people die from car accidents in the U.S., making them a “leading” cause of death in the country, according to the CDC. Cruise, GM’s autonomous vehicle unit, thinks it can reduce the number of traffic fatalities in the states by taking drivers out of the equation. But the American public isn’t ready to hand over the steering wheel.
“Our cars do not get distracted, they don’t drive drunk, and they follow the speed limits or whatever the restrictions are on the road,” says Prashanthi Raman, vice president of global government affairs at Cruise.
Cruise became the first autonomous vehicle brand to win permission to operate in a major metro area last year—as opposed to running its cars in limited areas like its rivals were—when it launched its robotaxis across San Francisco. Initially free of charge, Cruise eventually acquired a license to charge for its taxi services in the city and has rolled out services to Austin and Phoenix.
(See my colleague Phil Wahba’s interview with CEO Kyle Vogt earlier this year for more on the company.)
But while Cruise cars never drive drunk, the computer programs guiding the autonomous vehicles can still get things wrong. Just a couple weeks ago, a Cruise vehicle rear-ended a bus in San Francisco. Days earlier, another Cruise vehicle appeared to roll into a street closed by storm damage, getting tangled in the caution tape it steered through blindly.
Raman is keen to note that Cruise has driven over a million miles without drivers and without any accidents resulting in “life-threatening injuries or fatalities.” Humans, by comparison, cause 1.34 deaths for every 100 million miles driven in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
I would anticipate the autonomous vehicle accident rate to increase as the industry scales, and probably many Americans do, too, which is why the population is still wary of computers driving cars for them. A Pew Research Center survey from March last year found 63% of U.S. adults would not ride in a driverless car, while 45% of adults said they wouldn’t feel at all comfortable even sharing the road with autonomous vehicles.
Raman says Cruise is working hard to change that discomfort. Cruise is, Raman says, transparent about the company’s shortcomings—see its safety report here—and proactive about engaging communities where Cruise operates, including teaching first responders how to engage with Cruise vehicles when there’s no driver to communicate with.
Customers, Raman says, usually get over their fear of the autonomous vehicle when they actually ride in a driver-free car for the first time, taking a quick journey from fear of the unknown to comfort in mundanity.
“One of the things that we see as those first-time riders enter the car is there’s a mix of skepticism, excitement, enthusiasm, and a complex set of reactions. But once they actually experience the car, within two minutes, they’re back to playing on their cell phones,” Raman says.
At a local level, regulators who have already approved the rollout of autonomous vehicles are forgiving of the tech’s shortcomings, too. Last December, the NHTSA launched an investigation into Cruise’s safety, following three separate incidents where Cruise vehicles caused traffic jams or rear-end collisions.
Although San Francisco’s transportation agencies wrote to the NHTSA to inform the federal agency of Cruise’s issues, the municipal body said it “believes these incidents reflect the simple reality that the Cruise AV automated driving system is still under development.”
“We do not expect perfection,” the city said. Perhaps, if we want to stop worrying and love the AV, neither should we.
IN OTHER NEWS
Facebook parent Meta unleashed another round of layoffs across the company this week, two months after CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the group was embarking on a “year of efficiency.” But the mass culls have stripped some staff of confidence in their employer’s leadership. “You’ve shattered the morale and confidence in leadership of many high performers who work with intensity. Why should we stay at Meta?” one employee wrote in an internal company forum, Reuters reports.
Twitter made good on its pledge to remove legacy blue check marks from previously verified accounts this week and continued its rollout of a paid-for subscription service, where users can pay up to $11 to receive a blue check next to their name. Previous rollouts of the subscription service were abandoned after Twitter trolls paid to “verify” fake accounts—particularly ones imitating official Twitter accounts.
Encryption for some
Messaging companies, like Signal and WhatsApp, in the U.K. are fighting a bill that would force the apps to weaken their end-to-end encryption services so that government agencies can gain access to private messages. As Fortune’s David Meyer reports, governments are frequently at battle against encrypted messaging services, trying to legislate ways to crack into the secure messages in order to scan for signs of terrorism and abuse. But there’s no way for messaging services to selectively implement end-to-end encryption without making services less secure for all users.
Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai says it’s still a mystery how and why A.I. language models “hallucinate” and that the company’s engineers don’t fully understand how Google’s Bard chatbot works. According to Pichai, researchers call their area of ignorance within A.I. systems a “black box,” and some of its mysteries might never be solved.
“The backbone of any new technology is trust. Despite recent innovations, A.I. still faces tremendous hurdles: It can be error-prone, confidently generate plausible, yet incorrect, responses, and even be tricked into ignoring their programmed constraints to perform potentially harmful actions,” IBM CEO Arvind Krishna summarizes in his recent op-ed for Fortune, arguing that A.I. is ready to transform industries, but the tool must be trusted first.
“People working together with trusted A.I. will have a transformative effect on our economy and society. A.I.’s use is projected to unlock nearly $16 trillion in productivity by 2030. It’s time we embrace that partnership—and prepare our workforces for everything A.I. has to offer.”
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