Cruise, the self-driving subsidiary of General Motors, received permission from California regulators to begin testing driverless vehicles on state roads with passengers onboard.
In all, eight companies have been authorized to deploy completely driverless vehicles in California, but Cruise has become the first that will be able to drive passengers as a prelude to setting up a ride-sharing service. For now, the company will not be allowed to charge those passengers.
“The development of autonomous driving for private and fleet vehicles is expected to grow in the coming years as AV companies strive to provide safe, efficient transportation,” the California Public Utilities Commission said in a statement announcing the permit. “(Such) pilot programs are intended to allow AV companies to develop their technologies on a test basis, while providing for the safety and consumer protection of passengers of commercial operators within the CPUC’s jurisdiction.”
Cruise LLC was founded in 2013 and acquired by General Motors three years later. More recently, Honda has become a key investor as part of a series of joint ventures it has formed with GM. Other key investors now include Softbank, T. Rowe Price, Microsoft and Walmart.
Initially, Cruise aimed to develop kits that would allow car owners to retrofit their vehicles to operate autonomously. It soon shifted to developing technology for custom-designed vehicles and others specifically modified for use in autonomous fleets.
The company has been testing its technology on vehicles such as the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt EV. But, working with GM, Cruise has also come up with a toaster-shaped passenger shuttle, dubbed the Origin. Plans call for it to go into production in 2023 at Factory Zero, GM’s battery-car plant in Detroit.
The Cruise Origin is expected to be used in a ride-sharing service similar to what Google spinoff Waymo plans to set up. It is unclear whether the GM subsidiary may also sell the Origin or other products to competing ride-share services.
Until recently, companies like Cruise, Waymo and others have been allowed to test their autonomous technologies on public roads, but only with a back-up “safety operator” onboard, ready to retake control in an emergency.
Cruise leapfrogs competitors
The CPUC has now licensed eight companies under its Driverless Pilot program to begin testing fully driverless vehicles. The big difference is that Cruise will be the first company allowed to carry passengers. For now, however, it won’t be allowed to charge them for rides. And while there won’t be a driver onboard, the vehicles will need to be constantly monitored by a remote safety operator who also will be capable of taking control immediately.
For now, individual states regulate testing of autonomous vehicles. A bill to set federal guidelines has been stalled in Congress for several years, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has so for set out only limited national standards.
To date, Cruise has fielded 300 modified Chevrolet Bolt EVs, logging 2 million miles of testing on public roads. Most are being run near its San Francisco headquarters, though others are operating in Phoenix, another popular test site for autonomous startups, including Waymo.
A common sight?
There is widespread expectation that autonomous vehicles will become commonplace in the years ahead, but experts continue to question how soon that can happen. General Motors already offers limited hands-free driving capabilities on several models using its Super Cruise system, while Tesla has its Autopilot. Ford and Toyota will launch similar technology this coming year, with other automakers set to follow.
In industry parlance, these are “Level 2” systems. That means they only can operate under well-defined conditions — generally, limited-access highways in good weather — and require a driver ready to be ready to quickly take control, if needed. Level 3 technology will significantly broaden the circumstances under which such vehicles can operate.
The Cruise vehicles will use Level 4 technology that expands the range of roads on which they can operate without a driver onboard. The planned Cruise Origin shuttles won’t even have controls like a steering wheel or brake and accelerator pedals. Still, the vehicles will be “geo-fenced,” meaning they can be used only on specific roads and places and under defined conditions. It remains unclear when it will be possible to go the next step, fielding driverless vehicles that will be able to operate on their own, anywhere and at any time.