Cruise takes fully driverless vehicles to San Francisco streets

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — Cruise LLC says it's operating self-driving vehicles on San Francisco streets without a safety operator in the driver's seat — but one will remain in the passenger seat. 

The company set a goal to deploy fully self-driving vehicles in a major U.S. city without a driver behind the wheel by the end of this year. It has now dispatched a few of these vehicles on a few San Francisco streets.

"Cruise is now in the early stages of operating our self-driving vehicles on the streets of San Francisco without a driver behind the wheel," Cruise CEO Dan Ammann said on a call Wednesday.

Cruise spokesman Ray Wert said the company will keep a safety operator in the passenger seat during the beginning stages of testing. The operator can stop the vehicle in case of an emergency, "but does not have access to standard driver controls. Eventually this safety operator will be fully removed."

Largely owned by General Motors Co., Cruise is pushing to safely deploy fleets of driverless vehicles along with other autonomous vehicle companies. Much of what progress has been made with autonomous technology has been behind the scenes, but Ammann expects that to change. The deployment of a driverless vehicle is an example of the Cruise technology moving from the R&D lab to the street. 

Ford Motor Co. and its self-driving technology partner Argo AI plan to begin offering self-driving commercial services in Austin, Miami and Washington, D.C. in 2022.

Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet Inc., has opened up its fully driverless offering to Waymo One robotaxi riders in Phoenix. Waymo first started offering rides in driverless vehicles in 2019.

Cruise has yet to say when it expects to commercially deploy its fleet of driverless Chevrolet Bolt-based vehicles. It backed away from a 2019 date because further testing was needed. Ammann didn't specify a new deployment schedule on Wednesday:

"We don't have any specific additional timelines to share at this point in time. But I think you're going to see things move relatively quickly, and I think next year is going to be a pretty exciting year."

Cruise received the green light in October to test its autonomous vehicles without a safety driver on the streets of San Francisco. A permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles allows Cruise to test five completely driverless Bolt-based vehicles on certain streets in city. It was the fifth company to receive a driverless testing permit in the state. 

"We're starting small ... just a few cars in a few areas of the city," Amman said. "And we'll be expanding to new parts of the city at different times of the day on a steady and continuous basis until we're operating everywhere and around the clock with a full fleet of our driverless AVs."

Ammann was one of the first passengers in the driverless vehicle. He called the experience "wildly boring." 

"Our goal is to make that same experience available to as many people as possible as soon and as safely as we can," he said. "That could be either by taking a ride or by getting say a self-driving delivery."

Cruise and General Motors Co. hope to produce thousands of autonomous Bolt EVs for consumer use.

In January, Cruise unveiled the Cruise Origin, an electric self-driving shuttle it developed with GM and Honda Motor Co. GM's Factory Zero Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center will produce the Cruise Origin. The plant will launch first with the GMC Hummer EV in late 2021 and Cruise Origin production is expected to follow shortly after.

Since the Origin doesn't have driver controls, GM and Cruise are filing an exemption petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for approval to deploy the Origin, withdrawing an earlier request that focused only on Cruise AVs derived from the Bolt platform. 

Cruise has a total about 300 vehicles is has tested in Phoenix, San Francisco and Michigan over the last five years.

Twitter: @bykaleahall