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Ambitious AV Announcements Are Back Again!

After the last couple of years of modesty and expectation management from the AV sector, Cruise is sparking off a new round of aggressive forecasts for its robotaxi service.

Cruise, the self-driving subsidiary of General Motors, plans to scale up into the thousands of vehicles at a lower cost per mile than human-driven services over the next half a decade. Cruise’s Chief Executive Officer, Dan Ammann, stated that the company is wrapping its R&D phase this year and will enter Phase 2 next year. This will be the phase of early commercialization, via the retrofitted Chevy Bolt EV-based fleet of Cruise vehicles (the same vehicles that are currently on the roads in San Francisco and Phoenix). “Over the next 12 to 24 months, you will be able to push a button and get a ride with a very short ETA in a couple of major cities in the United States,” said Ammann.

Phase 3 will then begin in 2023. This will be the rapid scaling phase, when production of the purely autonomous (i.e. no steering wheels or human control levers) Cruise Origin will begin at GM’s Zero Assembly Plant, a factory dedicated to the production of electric vehicles.

Ammann said that Cruise’s approach is to solve the problem of getting the human out of the loop and doing so in one of the most complex driving environments – downtown San Francisco. To make the most of each vehicle, Cruise plans on switching between passenger and delivery modes, with interior modules that can be swapped in and out multiple times within a 24-hour operating cycle.

Moreover, Cruise plans to own everything to do with its services, from vehicles and autonomous software to the ride-hailing app and customer service. The company has already secured a $5 billion credit line from GM Financial for the production of the Origin without having to give away more equity to investors.

Key to this most recent ambitious announcement is Cruise receiving its driverless deployment permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which will allow it to charge for driverless freight services. With this permit, Cruise’s vehicles may operate on public roads between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. at a top speed limit of 30 miles per hour and can drive in light rain and light fog. Another permit is from the California Public Utilities Commission is required to operate a commercial robotaxi service for passengers, which the company expects to be “only months away” according to the Tech Crunch article.

Part of Cruise’s investment into the Origin’s autonomous system platform (which allows the AI and robotics to develop together in a closed-loop system) went into their in-house simulation software, through which the Origin will largely be validated. Even though the Origin has not been tested on public roads yet, it has already begun testing using this simulation software.

Cruise also has big ambitions to get its autonomous system’s cost curve so far down that it’ll be at a price point where it can be deployed into retail vehicles. “You can go to your local dealer and buy a car that has Cruise L4 system capability inside of it, and with a partnership with GM, that obviously gives us a huge opportunity to turn that into a reality, and to do that at a really large scale,” Amman said.

Personal Comment:

We’ve heard about robotaxi companies such as Cruise and Waymo getting permits to operate vehicles on streets without safety drivers before. So what’s the big deal here? Well, not all permits are made equal and in the AV world, and the details matter a lot. For example, in October 2020 Cruise received its permit to test cars without a safety driver onboard on the streets of San Francisco. This could be reported in different ways, either as Cruise becoming the first company to receive a driverless permit in San Francisco, or Cruise becoming the fifth company to receive such a permit in the state of California – as Waymo, Nuro, AutoX and Zoox had all received permits earlier for various cities around Silicon Valley. The significance is that San Francisco is objectively a much more difficult city to navigate for AVs. All these permits are also testing permits, and do not allow the companies to charge passengers for the transportation service.

Coming back to 2021, what’s new now is that the permit given to Cruise will allow them to begin charging for autonomous freight deliveries – that is, we are no longer in the permit area of ‘testing’ but early commercialization. In the difficult conditions of San Francisco as well, of all places. This should be viewed as an important and significant step-up from many of the developments reported over the last couple of years, which include Mobileye taking its testing program to the challenging streets of New York City and Waymo being able to charge customers for rides without safety drivers in Arizona, which has been more open to testing of self-driving cars without drivers. So even if Cruise can live up to a fraction of its Phase 2 ambitions, that will be a big deal.

Lastly, Cruise also made explicit mention of having a vision that “Cities will be given back to the humans … our cities will be cleaner and less congested. And people will have access to transportation that don’t have access to transportation today.” However, as we have covered many times before and again recently, it is questionable whether robotaxis will make our transportation lives easier or our cities less congested.

Written by Maria Ulan & Bobby Chen,
RISE Människa-autonomi / Elektromobilitet