Cruise Automation, the automated driving company owned by General Motors GM and partners including Honda, Softbank and other investors is moving on to the next stage of its development program. In October 2020, Cruise received a permit from the California department of motor vehicles that allowed it to begin testing some of its vehicles without safety operators. At the time, Cruise CEO Dan Ammann said that testing would begin before the end of the year. With about three weeks left, Cruise has hit that next milestone.
Beginning driverless tests on the open road is a big deal for Cruise even if it won’t likely mean anything for people trying to get around San Francisco for some time yet. Cruise had originally planned to launch a commercial robotaxi service a year ago. That launch was delayed because the technology was simply not mature enough yet. However, that original launch timing was believed to be tied to milestones set in funding agreements with investors such as the Softbank Vision Fund.
According to several sources, Cruise had to renegotiate some of those funding agreements to revise development milestones including the first driverless tests on open roads. At this time, Cruise isn’t saying exactly how much of San Francisco its vehicles are covering without safety operators beyond “a few neighborhoods.”
To date, the Cruise test fleet has accumulated two millions miles of automated driving in the city of San Francisco in addition to an undisclosed number of miles in Arizona and Michigan. Before getting the go-ahead to start driving in San Francisco without someone behind the steering wheel, the Cruise vehicles had to pass a test suite at the GM Milford Proving Ground in Michigan. The vehicles had to complete 1,000 runs with zero errors over five months.
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The first driverless runs in the city were livestreamed recently to Cruise employees and an excerpt has been posted on Youtube. Even without someone at the wheel, Cruise still has someone monitoring the situation from the front passenger seat, ready to hit the big red button if something goes wrong.
While Cruise likes to highlight the fact that they do the bulk of their testing in the complex environment of San Francisco rather than the suburbs of Phoenix, the video released only shows the car operating at night on streets with no other moving traffic or pedestrians. For now at least, this is not a particularly challenging scenario for a driverless vehicle.
As Ammann said, “these first driverless tests are a small and humble step towards a much bigger goal.”
Cruise is not the first company to send vehicles out without a safety operator. Waymo has been testing in the Phoenix area for more than two years and earlier this fall it began carrying paying passengers on its Waymo One service on limited routes around Chandler, Arizona. Yandex YNDX has also been conducting full driverless tests in Ann Arbor, Michigan where I got a ride this past summer. In China, both Baidu BIDU and AutoX have also recently launched tests without safety operators. However, Waymo remains the only company conducting commercial operations without safety operators.
Cruise has also been testing its ride hailing service in San Francisco with employees for more than three years. That is expected to be opened to the public at least on a limited basis before the end of 2021, perhaps after the purpose-built Origin robotaxi goes into production next fall. Larger scale operations are unlikely to begin until sometime in 2022 at the earliest.