The former head of NHTSA blows up Cruise’s ‘Humans are terrible drivers’ commercials

A former administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has responded to a full-page advertisement appearing in several major newspapers by Cruise, General Motors’ self-driving subsidiary, which says terrible human driver.

The ad points to nearly 43,000 fatal crashes by 2022 and promotes autonomous vehicles as the solution.

“It is immoral to use the pain and suffering of death to promote unproven and unsafe products,” said Joan Claybrook, an attorney who served as head of the NHTSA from 1977 to 1981, and as president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen from 1982 to 2009.

Claybrook called the ad a ploy by GM to recoup some of its investment in the billions of dollars spent developing the Cruise self-driving vehicle. According to GM 2022 earnings reportthe automaker lost $1.9 billion on Cruise in 2022, up from $1.2 billion in 2021. GM said it expects Cruise to generate $50 billion annually in revenue by 2030.

Cruise published the advert last week in the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee. Cruise’s message comes as the California Public Utilities Commission postpones, for the second time, hearings on Cruise’s expansion of permits and competitor Waymo’s to charge robotaxi rides across the city 24/7, amid increasing pressure from the opposition.

“You may be a good driver, but many of us are not,” the advert reads. “People cause millions of accidents every year in the US. Cruise ship driverless cars are designed to save lives.”

In the commercial, Cruise points to “1 Million Mile Safety Report,” was developed with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to compare a naturalistic human journey to that of an autonomous Cruise driver. The study found that Cruise vehicles, which have accumulated more than 1 million miles driven, resulted in 53% fewer crashes, 92% fewer crashes as a major contributor and 73% fewer crashes with a significant risk of injury when compared to human drivers in a comparable driving environment.

“One million miles driven by autonomous vehicles (AV) at first glance may seem like a large number but it is less than 0.00003 percent of the more than three trillion miles driven annually on US roads,” Claybrook said in a statement released by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “On top of that, this is minuscule compared to the 310 billion miles traveled in California every year. By comparison, in one work week, human drivers in San Francisco nearly tripled the one million miles it takes Cruise in a year to accumulate.

Claybrook called Cruise’s safety report limited and the process opaque, noting that Cruise had not released any comparative studies from the universities he partnered with on the report. A spokesperson for Cruise told Zero2Billions that the company cannot share the study without permission from the University of Michigan and Virginia Tech.

While AV Cruise did not have a fatal driving accident in San Francisco, the company has come under fire for malfunctioning vehicles stopping in traffic, blocking other vehicles, emergency vehicles, and public transit. A mishmash of residents, the San Francisco fire chief, the police officers’ association, and the SFMTA have all expressed concern about the safety and efficacy of AV after many such incidents.

In response to Cruise’s immobilization while operating on public roads and an incident where the robot’s axle may have applied hard braking inappropriately, NHTSA last December opened a preliminary investigation into the vehicle. The agency did not respond to Zero2Billions in time to provide an update.

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