The saga of GM’s autonomous company, Cruise, continues today with the release of a report that shows numerous failings at the company. Specifically, it shows an executive leadership team so antagonistic toward the media and regulators that it refused to admit its car dragged a pedestrian until it was forced to do so.
It’s depressing, but it’s worth reviewing the accident and Cruise’s failings with regard to both Cruise itself and the oversight of General Motors. Now the oversight of the Justice Department is going to fill in where GM failed, because GM also clearly failed here.
There’s a lot to talk about, so I’m going to include a bit about the Italian premier spanking Stellantis a bit for not being as Italian as the, uh, Dutch-Anglo-French-Italian-American company is supposed to apparently be. And, finally, going to cut all this angry news with more Škoda news, because you all deserve it.
Cruise Was Worried About “Media and Enemies”
General Motors did the crisis management thing of hiring an outside law firm to do a report on how its driverless taxi subsidiary Cruise could have screwed up so badly. In case you’ve somehow missed it, on October 2nd a Cruise Robotaxi in San Francisco was out driving when a nearby Nissan struck a pedestrian and fled. Unfortunately, the Cruise robotaxi also hit the pedestrian and unknowingly dragged that pedestrian about 20 feet, trapping her under the car.
This was already an awful event, made worse by Cruise’s decisions to withhold information from both the media and regulators, resulting in the company having its self-driving license revoked, shutting down its taxi service, and seeing its executive team either leave or get fired.
Now General Motors has released that report to the public (you can read the whole thing here) and it shows a company that seems more obsessed with perception than actual safety. This is absolutely no surprise to us as, in our experience, Cruise was always quick to try and deflect blame and was often upset with us for trying to accurately describe what we saw its vehicles doing in our reporting.
Ok, so back to the night of the incident. Because of the way the Cruise AV robotaxi sends information to home base it became clear that the initial collission was not the fault of the Cruise AV but the human-driven Nissan Sentra and that became what the company’s internal “war room” became fixated on (the police report would ultimately determine the pedestrian crossed against a DO NOT WALK signal). From the report:
At 11:50 p.m., the SVP of Government Affairs, Estrada, wrote to his VP of Global Government Affairs, Raman, that it “feels like we are fighting with both arms tied behind our back if we are so afraid of releasing an exonerating video, very naïve if we think we won’t get walloped by media and enemies.” In response, Raman captured well the feeling within Cruise’s senior leadership, stating: “we are under siege is my opinion, we have no fighting chance with these headlines/media stories…we are drowning — and we will lose every time.” In fact, the October 2 Accident was the “highest spike in coverage for any incident” Cruise had ever had, according to an analysis Cruise did in the aftermath of the event, resulting in 165 pieces of press coverage and more than 2,500 social media mentions.
This is shortly after the accident and the report makes it clear that the senior leadership team (SLT) had no idea that the car dragged the pedestrian. Also, it’s worth making clear that this “war room” had about 200 people in it, which is something the law firm behind the report makes clear is not a particularly effective way to respond to a crisis.
Founder and then-CEO Kyle Vogt jumps in and decides what should be shown to the media and what shouldn’t be. All of this happened late at night a few hours after the crash on October 2nd, and the report says the media strategy “focused exclusively on correcting the record that the Cruise AV had caused the Accident.”
By early the next morning, engineers quickly deduced that the Cruise robotaxi did drag the pedestrian to the side of the road, pinning her under the car. From what GM revealed it appears that engineers and mid-level staffers were concerned with identifying what really happened and communicating that with the senior leadership.
You can probably guess what happened next:
As a result of this new information, Vogt, Communications VP McLear, and other employees discussed whether to amend Cruise’s initial media communications, including its social media statement, to disclose the pullover maneuver and pedestrian dragging. According to one interviewee, “the outcome [of these discussions] was whatever statement was published on social we would stick with because the decision was we would lose credibility by editing a previously agreed upon statement.”
Yes, because the best way to retain your credibility is to mislead reporters by withholding key information. To me, as a long-time journalist, seeing reports like this drives me absolutely bonkers. In what universe would this information not eventually come out?
Cruise continued to show an edited version of the incident video to reporters well after the company was aware that the Crusie robotaxi dragged the victim. To the credit of the unnamed reporters, many of them did inquire as to why the full information wasn’t shared. The report explains why:
A message between two Cruise employees, one of whom attended the 6:45 a.m. SLT meeting, confirmed that the SLT “agreed to not share anything just yet . . . seems like SLT leaning towards not sharing unless we’re backed into a corner.” In light of this decision, the Cruise communications team continued to screen-share the Media Video well into the afternoon of October 3 with such media outlets as CBS News, SFGate, KRON4, KPIX, and Crain’s Business, despite knowing that the video stopped at the point of impact and omitted key details of the Accident.
That is extremely damning. The rest of the report, which we’ll discuss in another story, shows how this attitude continued in interactions with regulators and what company representatives did or did not say.
The conclusions from the attorneys with regard to the media make a lot of sense:
The tragic Accident of October 2 would never have occurred but for a human hit-and-run driver. But that is only part of the story, as the AV’s pullover maneuver unfortunately dragged the already injured pedestrian another 20 feet. Then, due to poor leadership and mistakes of judgment, Cruise focused on rebutting erroneous media stories as to the Accident’s cause, rather than also ensuring the communication of material facts to its regulators and other government officials, the media, and the public. These mistakes made matters worse—ultimately to the detriment of Cruise.
Again, no one who had to deal with Cruise during this period is going to be surprised by this.
The Justice Department Will Investigate Cruise, But What About The Board?
It’s great that General Motors released the internal report, which pretty thoroughly tosses the leadership of Cruise at the time under the… maybe this is bad metaphor. General Motors was helpful in releasing a report that shows the leadership of Cruise performed terribly and, clearly, that there was an awful management culture at the company.
Who appointed that leadership, exactly? The Board of Directors is ultimately responsible for what happens at a company and the Cruise Board of Directors includes Mary Barra, Mark Reuss, Craig Glidden, and other GM employees/ Board members.
The report does not, in my reading of it, include much in the way of communications between Cruise’s leadership and its own Board of Directors. What did GM CEO Mary Barra know and when did she know it? What did the rest of the board know? How was this culture allowed to persist at the company?
What we did learn yesterday was that both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department are investigating Cruise and maybe they can tell us what happened. Via the Associated Press, we don’t know much:
GM didn’t release any details about the nature of the Justice Department’s investigation, or of another one by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. A company spokesman would only say GM is cooperating with authorities.
The revelations about the latest troubles facing Detroit-based GM and San Francisco-based Cruise came in a report reviewing how things were handled after the pedestrian was hurt.
The question of how the Board of Directors responded to all of this and what they knew is going to be important in judging whether or not Cruise can be made into a trustworthy company again.
Italy Is Maaaaaaaaad At Stellantis
Do I love writing about Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni because I get to use this photo of her with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic? I think we know this is true.
But that’s not the story! The story is Meloni is not pleased with Stellantis and its CEO Carlos Tavares.
From the AP via The Detroit News:
As one of Italy’s top private sector employers, Fiat and its successors, Fiat Chrysler and then Stellantis, have always gotten government attention, but rarely have premiers been so pointed in their comments. Meloni also characterized the merger that created Stellantis in 2021 as a French takeover.
The French are coming! The French are coming! It gets better:
“If you want to sell cars on the international market advertised as Italian jewels, then these cars need to be produced in Italy,” Meloni said.
I feel like there was probably no mention in this speech of Stellantis passing off Italian-made Jeeps as American jewels, but oh well. Tavares was actually in Italy at the time so reporters got to ask him about it:
Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares, who was visiting a plant in Abruzzo, told reporters that he didn’t think the company’s Italian workers would appreciate Meloni’s characterizations.
“We have more than 40,000 workers in Italy who work very hard to adapt the company to the new reality, as decided by politicians, and they are full of talent,’’ he said.
“As decided by politicians.” LOLOLOLOL.
Škoda Celebrates 25 Years In Rally
Hell yeah. The 2024 World Rally Championship kicks off this weekend with the Monte Carlo Rally and we get to celebrate 25 years of Škoda rally cars. Please enjoy:
What I’m Listening To As I Write This
This is a weird one to explain. Imagine if Leonard Cohen wrote a pop album, I guess? I’m going to include Self Esteem’s “I Do This All The Time” from her album “Prioritise Pleasure” because it’s the easiest gateway drug into the album and is the most Cohen-esque. It’s really good and the whole album is extremely listenable. The production is pretty straightforward so you’ll want to pay attention lest you miss some absolute wallops in the lyrics: “Sexting you at the mental health talk seems counterproductive.”
The Big Question
Is Cruise salvageable at this point?