GM's Cruise rolls out a self-driving shuttle developed with Honda

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Clarification: This story has been updated to indicate the image of the Cruise Origin self-driving shuttle is a photo illustration. It was not accurately labeled.

Cruise LLC, the autonomous-vehicle unit of General Motors Co., has introduced a self-driving, all-electric, ride-sharing shuttle it built in partnership with GM and Honda Motor Co.

The Cruise Origin that rolled out Tuesday is a boxy vehicle with no steering wheel or gas pedal. Sliding doors allow enough space that when someone gets in, someone else can get out. It can seat at least four. It is powered by a new, all-electric platform built by GM. And its construction is modular so the technology can be updated as needed.

The Cruise Origin was rolled out Tuesday by Cruise LLC, the autonomous vehicle unit of GM.

"By getting rid of all of the stuff, we were left with something simple, something awesome and something all-too missing from life today: space," Cruise CEO Dan Ammann said at the San Francisco premiere. "Space for you and space so other people don't have to sit in your space."

Amman said the Origin is not a concept exercise. "It is a production vehicle," he said.

Few details were given on how the Origin will be used as a ride-sharing service, or where. But Amman said that because Cruise will "own the entire experience, from the app to the Origin to customer service, our customers will get the same consistent experience, every time. That’s really important."

He said a production location will be released in coming days.

"As an original vehicle, it's a great step forward for Cruise," said Jessica Caldwell,  executive director of industry analysis at Inc., an auto  information website. "There is a lot to like about the Origin, but I think what we are waiting for is a definitive timeline of not only when this technology will exist, but when it will roll out and affect the life of an average person." 

The introduction comes after Cruise delayed in July the launch of its fleet of autonomous Chevrolet Bolt-based Cruise AVs. And it takes place as the auto industry awaits more regulatory guidance and continues to battle concerns with the technology following several crashes involving Teslas being operated on Autopilot by inattentive drivers, and the death of a pedestrian who was hit by one of Uber's self-driving SUVs. 

GM and Cruise announced in October 2018 that they joined with Honda to build a new autonomous vehicle, with Honda contributing $2 billion over 12 years to develop "purpose-built autonomous vehicles" that can be manufactured at high volume for a variety of uses globally.

An autonomous-vehicle introduction is a step toward an autonomous future, "but until you solve these problems on the regulatory or the technical side it doesn’t mean much," said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Navigant Research

Last July, Ammann wrote in a blog post that the company would need to extend its testing and validation miles to reach "the level of performance and safety validation required to deploy a fully driverless service." 

That move meant GM and Cruise would miss a self-imposed 2019 deadline to launch the first iteration of an autonomous vehicle for commercial use. 

"The systems just aren’t reliable enough. They are still not as good as human drivers," Abuelsamid said. 

The biggest technical issues facing autonomous vehicles are perception and prediction or being able to figure out what's surrounding the vehicle and then predict where those things are going to go, Abuelsamid said.

Meanwhile, there's a gray area surrounding what's legal and what's not when it comes to putting autonomous vehicles on the road. In early January, the Trump administration rolled out a third set of guidelines for self-driving vehicles and tripled down on a voluntary approach that essentially lets carmakers regulate themselves.

"I think a succinct way of defining this is the regulatory environment is totally uncertain,"  said Mike Ramsey, senior research director at Gartner Inc., a global research and advisory firm. "Whether something is legal or not is very hard to actually determine."

Crosstown rival Ford Motor Co. and self-driving partner company Argo AI plan to launch their first fleets of their autonomous vehicles in 2021.

Ford and Argo have stressed the need to deploy in multiple markets in order to make the costly business of developing, testing and manufacturing autonomous vehicles profitably. Ford and Argo currently test fleets of vehicles in Palo Alto, Miami, Austin, Washington, Detroit and Pittsburgh. 

Meantime, Google's self-driving affiliate Waymo LLC confirmed in late 2019 that it has a plant in metro Detroit operating and outfitting fleets of vehicles with its autonomous driving hardware and software. That company has been running a taxi service in Phoenix through an "early rider" program. That company also tests in California.

Cruise and GM currently have a 180-vehicle test fleet in San Francisco.

In 2016, GM acquired Cruise Automation, a San Francisco-based software company, to speed its development of autonomous vehicle technology.

GM previously said its Orion Assembly Plant would build its first autonomous car without a steering wheel or gas pedal. The automaker invested more than $100 million at Orion Township and Brownstown Battery Assembly Plant, where roof modules, which have special equipment for autonomous operation, would be built.

Last year, Cruise received a $1.15 billion investment from institutional investors. Additionally, Cruise garnered a $2.25 billion investment from Japan's SoftBank Investment Advisers. Following the SoftBank investment, Cruise announced a $2.75 billion partnership with Honda Motor Co. on future autonomous vehicle development.

Twitter: @bykaleahall

Staff writer Ian Thibodeau contributed