Cruise, the autonomous driving company acquired by General Motors in 2016, unveiled its first complete vehicle — the Cruise Origin — in San Francisco on January 21. The vehicle itself may look familiar. It is basically a box on wheels designed to move people from Point A to Point B in comfort. May Mobility has a similar looking vehicle in service in Providence, Rhode Island. There are only so many things designers can do with what amounts to a horizontal elevator on wheels.
The Origin features a large sliding door on the curb side and a low floor height to make getting in and out easy. It seats 6 — three facing forward and three facing backward, with plenty of room in between for feet, packages, wet umbrellas, and the like. What it doesn’t have is a steering wheel, driver’s seat, or pedals. Instead, it has an array of sensors mounted at all four corners of the roof. Cruise says the Origin could also be equipped with a rollup door instead of sliding doors to make it suitable for use as a cargo delivery device.
Technical details about the Origin are sparse. The company says it will go into production sometime in the future (as opposed to the past) and will begin operating first in San Francisco. That’s where Cruise has its headquarters and where it has been operating a fleet of autonomous Chevy Bolts equipped with electronic sensors. Those cars have accumulated more than a million miles of driving in and around the City By The Bay. “We’re close to cracking that human performance barrier,” Karl Vogt, CTO of Cruise, told the audience at Tuesday’s announcement.
According to Wired, those Bolts currently have a human driver on board but Cruise may begin using modified versions of the Bolt with no steering wheel or pedals before the Origin makes its first appearance on city streets. The Origin will be built by General Motors at an undisclosed location. Honda was involved in developing the vehicle but will not play a role in the manufacturing process. We can assume the Origin will leverage some of the battery and powertrain technology of the Bolt, but that is just speculation at this point.
Cruise sees the Origin as a more cost effective alternative to Uber and Lyft. (GM also has a significant investment in Lyft.) A report by AAA in 2018 stated that urbanites who ditched owning a private car and relied exclusively on those ride-hailing services would spend more than $20,000 a year for transportation — roughly double the cost of owning a private car.
Cruise CEO Dan Ammann told those in attendance Tuesday, the Origin is “what you would build if there were no cars.” Once the Origin autonomous ride-hailing service is up and running, it will cost city dwellers $5,000 a year less to use Origin than to own a private car, Ammann says. Cities may benefit from less traffic as well. Some studies suggest that there are so many Uber and Lyft vehicles in service that congestion in cities is actually worse with them than it was without them. For more about the Origin from Cruise, take a few minutes to watch the video below.
Autonomous Cars & Public Trust
Karl Vogt has had a lot to say about autonomous driving lately. In particular, he claims the “disengagement reports” companies are required to supply to regulators in California are virtually useless. In a recent post on Medium, Vogt wrote, “The idea that disengagements give a meaningful signal about whether an [autonomous vehicle] is ready for commercial deployment is a myth.” A disengagement is when a human driver takes over for the self-driving guidance system used to pilot vehicles in testing.
According to The Verge, his remarks seem to be aimed primarily at Waymo, which is testing a fleet of autonomous Chrysler Pacificas in the Phoenix area. Vogt claims his company’s cars do a far better job of interfacing with vehicles driven by humans than Waymo’s cars do. In particular, Cruise safety engineers will occasionally take over control to promote the smooth flow of traffic whereas Waymo’s Pacificas often dither for long minutes at intersections trying to decide when it is safe to move. Vogt had more to say on this subject in his post.
Our collective fixation on disengagements has been further fueled by the AV companies themselves. Many of them give demo rides that include a de facto story-line that goes something like, “I didn’t touch the wheel during this demo, therefore it works.” This is silly, and everyone knows it. It’s like judging a basketball team’s performance for the year based on how they looked during a practice session. Or winning a single spin of roulette and claiming you’ve beaten the house. A carefully curated and constrained demo ride is just the tip of the iceberg, and we all know what happens if we ignore what’s lurking below the surface.
The AV industry is in a trust race, so it’s important that we do things to build confidence in the technology. It’s certainly convincing to go on a ride where it seems the human is just there for show, or on rides where there’s no human present at all. So companies carefully curate demo routes, avoid urban areas with cyclists and pedestrians, constrain geofences and pickup/dropoff locations, and limit the kinds of maneuvers the AV will attempt during the ride — all in order to limit the number of disengagements. Because after all, an AV is only ready for primetime if it can do dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of these kinds of trips without a human touching the wheel. That’s the ultimate sign that the technology is ready, right? Wrong.
Keep in mind that driving on a well-marked highway or wide, suburban roads is not the same as driving in a chaotic urban environment. The difference in skill required is just like skiing on green slopes vs. double black diamonds.
Ultimately, I believe that in order for an AV operator to deploy AVs at scale in a ridesharing fleet, the general public and regulators deserve hard, empirical evidence that an AV has performance that is super-human (better than the average human driver) so that the deployment of the AV technology has a positive overall impact on automotive safety and public health. This requires a) data on the true performance of human drivers and AVs in a given environment and b) an objective, apples-to-apples comparison with statistically significant results. We will deliver exactly that once our AVs are validated and ready for deployment. Expect to hear more from us about this very important topic soon.
Presumably, the Origin autonomous vans will start appearing in significant numbers once its self-driving systems have surmounted that “human performance barrier” and are better drivers than the humans behind the wheels of the cars around them.