GM’s Cruise unveils its first driverless vehicle

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Cruise, the self-driving car start-up, majority owned by General Motors, has unveiled its first vehicle designed to be driverless. The electric-powered Cruise Origin was developed by Honda, which also has a stake in the company. The launch of the vehicle, which has no steering wheel or pedals, had been delayed from last year.

Cruise said it was designed for shared ownership: “It’s not a product you buy, it’s an experience you share.” Chief executive Dan Ammann wants drivers to move away from individual ownership to a sharing model, to help reduce emissions, accidents and congestion. Speaking at the launch in San Francisco, he said the Cruise Origin was not a concept vehicle: “It is self-driven. It is all electric. It is shared.”

He did not say when the vehicle would go into production nor how many the company planned to build. It has not been approved to drive on roads, and it will require extensive testing before this is granted. “Our work is far from done,” Mr Ammann said on Tuesday.

Cruise has often been described as a “division” or “unit” of General Motors, but the company prefers “majority owned subsidiary.” (The automaker technically owns two-thirds of Cruise, which it bought in 2016.) However, GM isn’t the only major automaker in Cruise’s corner. In October 2018, Honda announced its plan to invest $2.75 billion in Cruise over 12 years. The company has also raised money from Japan’s SoftBank Vision Fund and T. Rowe Price, and has a valuation of $19 billion.

As part of the Honda deal, GM teamed up with the Japanese automaker to design a “purpose-built” self-driving car. A “purpose-built car” is not a normal car retrofitted to be self-driving, as a majority of the autonomous vehicles on the road today are. Rather, it’s a car designed from the ground up to drive itself. That would be in addition to the steering wheel-and-pedal-less Chevy Bolt that GM and Cruise are working on. At the time, Vogt teased a vehicle with “giant TV screens, a mini bar, and lay-flat seats.”

“WE BUILT THIS CAR AROUND THE IDEA OF NOT HAVING A DRIVER”

The Origin has none of these amenities, but Vogt insists its real asset is its modularity. “We built this car around the idea of not having a driver and specifically being used in a ride-share fleet,” he says. “This vehicle is engineered to last a million miles and all the interior components are replaceable. The compute is replaceable, the sensors are replaceable. And what that does is it drives the cost per mile down way lower than you could ever reach if you took a regular car and tried to retrofit it. The replacement cost and the upkeep of that would just kill you from a business standpoint.”

I don’t typically hear AV companies talk about “unit economics” and profitability. But that’s going to creep up sooner than a lot of people realize, Vogt says. Experts estimate that each self-driving car could cost upward of $300,000-$400,000, when taking into account the expensive sensors and computing software needed to allow the vehicles to drive themselves. Recouping those costs will be enormously challenging, and Cruise is trying to address that by building a car with more staying power than most personally owned vehicles.

Cruise has been working on the design of the Origin for over three years, but Honda’s involvement “super charged” the effort. The two automakers didn’t collaborate on every tiny detail; instead, they split up the work based on their expertise. GM was responsible for the base vehicle design and the electric powertrain, while Honda helped create the interior’s “efficient use of space,” Vogt says. Meanwhile, Cruise handled the sensing and computing technologies, as well as the experience from the rider’s standpoint.

Vogt allows that the sensor suite could change before the vehicle goes into production. But right now, it has the standard configuration found in many AVs on the road today: radar, cameras and LIDAR laser sensors. The hard drive, stored in the trunk and housing the vehicle’s artificial intelligence and perception software, is cooled by the vehicle’s battery system, making it quieter and less prone to overheating than previous iterations. That means passengers riding in the forward-facing seats won’t have to experience overly toasty tushies (as I have riding with another AV operator).

Cruise, with Honda’s help, designed the interior of the vehicle primarily for shared rides. The screens, one on either side, will display an itinerary for picking up and dropping off each passenger, so riders know what to expect. Carpooling in the age of smartphones hasn’t exactly been the runaway success that ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft have hoped. But Cruise thinks its abundance of space can help minimize the friction.

“It’s designed to be comfortable if it’s shared, but if it’s just you, you’ve got so much space in here you can really like stretch out,” he says, extending his legs so his feet almost touch mine. Almost, but not quite.

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