On Cruise's Crash (and Quinn's Report)

Cruise has now released a preliminary report by Quinn Emanuel, the law firm that the company hired to review its response to its infamous October 2023 crash in California. A few initial thoughts:

1) Quinn’s clients include both Cruise and GM. The report documents—at length and with specific quotations—Cruise’s internal discussions, its interactions with the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and its interactions with various state and local agencies in California. In contrast, the report says nothing about GM’s internal discussions and almost nothing about Cruise’s interactions with GM. On one hand, the report notes that “Notwithstanding GM’s ownership interest, based upon Quinn Emanuel’s review, Cruise largely operates independently of GM.” On the other hand, the report describes how Cruise “mention[ed] the pullover maneuver and pedestrian dragging” in its “30-Day Report” to NHTSA only after “consultation with GM” and “at the urging of GM.” The report provides no further detail on these or any other interactions with GM: no names, no quotations, and no citations.

2) The report has several limitations, of which two stand out. First, “Quinn Emanuel’s review of documents continues, which in some cases may necessitate new interviews or re-interviews of certain people. This Report is thus subject to possible supplementation or changes at some future date, depending upon what, if any, additional facts are discovered.” (Given Cruise’s own failure to correct its initial misrepresentations, this seems a particularly prudent caveat.) Second, “a limited number of employees and contractors have been unavailable for interviews due to personal circumstances and/or the wide-scale Reduction in Force (‘RIF’) the Company implemented following the DMV Suspension Order and NHTSA recall; however, Quinn Emanuel does not view these interviews as essential to the accuracy of its Report in light of other available evidence.” This “RIF” involved firing nearly a quarter of Cruise employees.

3) The report suggests that Quinn was not asked to look at Cruise’s interactions with reporters—but that it did so anyway. Good. The undeniably egregious part of this incident has always been Cruise’s failure to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to reporters and therefore to the public. Regardless of what happened in Cruise’s interactions with various government agencies, it has been clear for months that Cruise misled the public—and that, at some point along the timeline, this became intentional. The report supports this conclusion with compelling details (while pulling its punches in its conclusion): Cruise specifically decided not to update its initial statement about the crash, and its then-vice president for communications stated at the time that the company had “no obligation to share anything with the press”—ignoring that the company had already shared something with the press. While the report does not expressly implicate Cruise’s then-CEO in the decision not to correct what had become a lie by omission, it does recount him instructing, before he was allegedly aware that the crash victim had been dragged, “that ‘nothing … be shared or done’ regarding the media without his sign off.”

4) The report notes the need for Cruise to “restore trust and credibility” (my emphasis). Cruise previously described the “orderly pause” of its driverless operations as “a further step to rebuild public trust” (my emphasis again). No less than the New York Times parroted Cruise in describing the company’s efforts to “rebuild trust” and then to “regain the public’s trust” (my emphasis yet again). Can we please stop saying this? It implies Cruise had something it then lost, and it muddies the distinction between perception and behavior. After all, there is a difference between being trusted and being trustworthy. The correct question: What must Cruise do to earn trust?

5) On that note: The report includes a technical analysis (prepared by Exponent, an engineering consulting firm known for working with defendants) that is heavily redacted: Many paragraphs, figures, names of figures, and even acronyms are blacked out. A simple example: We are told that “The AV is capable of capturing [redacted] exterior views using onboard cameras.” What does Cruise possibly gain by concealing how many cameras it uses? Yes, this technical analysis probably contains information that Cruise considers proprietary. Yes, its competitors would probably be interested in some of these details. But so what? Under the circumstances, literally hiding more is an especially bad look. Once again, Cruise appears to be arrogantly deciding what the public deserves to know and what they don’t. In this way, these redactions are revealing: They are certainly not the mark of a trustworthy company.

6) A small observation: The report suggests that “internet connectivity issues” explain at least some of the discrepancies between what Cruise allegedly intended to show several government agencies and what those agencies actually saw. While this appears to be a reference to the quality of one Cruise employee’s home internet connection, it’s still odd to see Cruise still struggling with connectivity. And it’s the most prominent example yet of an AV (as in automated vehicle) company stumbling because of AV (as in audiovisual) problems.

7) I still worry that “a driverless car dragged a pedestrian” has become shorthand for this incident. That characterization is as unjustifiably incomplete as Cruise’s own initial public statement. Yes, it is tragic that yet another person was seriously injured on our roads. And yes, it is concerning that an automated driving system clearly failed. But it is outrageous that a company tried to cover up this failure vis-à-vis the public. It is outrageous that a human driver struck a fellow human being and then simply fled the scene. And it is outrageous that we as Americans accept a transport system that kills tens of thousands of people and seriously injures hundreds of thousands more every year, even as other rich countries have made their own roads far safer.

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