Cruise Origin driverless vehicle designed to disrupt transportation

Cruise Origin San Francisco

Concept art of Cruise Origin in San Francisco’s Castro District. Source: Cruise

SAN FRANCISCO — Cruise LLC, the autonomous vehicle unit of General Motors Co., last night unveiled Cruise Origin, which executives said will make urban transportation safer, easier, and cheaper. The driverless vehicle is the result of a collaboration among Cruise, GM, and Honda Motor Co.

The announcement, at a “Moving Beyond the Car” event here, followed hints by CEO Dan Ammann on social media about problems with mass transit and single-occupancy cars, as well as news media speculation about Cruise’s intentions. Onstage, he talked about how small choices, such as driving rather taking a bus to work on a Friday, pit self-interest against the common good.

A video noted that each year, conventional automobiles are involved in 40,000 fatalities in the U.S., each car emits three times its weight in carbon dioxide, and American commuters spend 8 billion hours in traffic.

Tradeoffs between convenience, speed, safety, and the climate require a different approach than that taken by cars with internal combustion engines in the past 50 years, said Ammann. Ride-sharing startups such as Uber haven’t addressed the problems of traffic congestion or pollution, and they still rely on variable human drivers, he said.

Designing Cruise Origin for a post-automobile world

To address these challenges, Cruise designed a vehicle from the ground up to improve the experience of shared rides, Ammann said. By offering Cruise Origin as a service itself, the company wants to lower the cost of commuting by $5,000 per family, per year. It is not a concept model but is ready for production, Ammann said.

Before unveiling Origin, Cruise displayed four versions of modified Chevy Bolts. The most recent one, from 2018, had no steering wheels and no gas or brake pedals, like Cruise Origin. The latest vehicle is not Version 5 of the modified Bolts but is brand-new, said a company spokesman.

Cruise no wheel

A fourth-generation autonomous Chevy Bolt with no steering wheel or pedals. Credit: The Robot Report

With fewer moving parts, the electric shared vehicle is intended to have a lifespan of 1 million miles, six times longer than the average for cars today. GM is planning for millions of electric vehicles, and the space formerly dedicated to an engine or a human driver has been repurposed for more passenger room, explained Ammann.

In addition, Cruise Origin’s modular design takes advantage of improvements in sensors and computing that are more rapid than traditional product cycles, said Kyle Vogt, chef technology officer. This will also contribute to its longevity, since it won’t be tied to consumer purchasing habits. Shifts in buying behavior have affected automotive demand and the robotics industry.

“We spent the past several years improving our products and improving the process to improve our products,” Vogt said.

Like rival Waymo, Cruise has been gathering data from its fleet of third-generation self-driving cars, which run around the clock and shuttle employees (with safety drivers) in San Francisco. Last year, Cruise marked 1 million miles of “rich data” — 30 to 40 times that of suburban driving — from numerous chaotic edge cases, which it has used to improve performance.

Sometimes, a scene is uploaded, reconstructed in a 3D simulation, and supervised by humans to benchmark and improve the software, Vogt said.

The goal is “superhuman” levels of safe driving performance, inspired in part by nature. Vogt demonstrated a swiveling set of cameras mounted in pairs on Origin and that moved like an owl but faster. He declined to say how many sensors Origin has but said it has a “full suite of radar, lidar, thermal sensors, and cameras” to see beyond headlights and human perception.

Vogt swivel sensor

Cruise’s Kyle Vogt demonstrates swiveling sensors. Credit: The Robot Report

“At Origin’s rate of improvement, we’re close to surpassing human performance,” Vogt said. “We haven’t yet cracked that threshold. Beyond sensing and data, there is still a lot of work to be done.”

Partners work to enhance the passenger experience

Cruise partnered with Honda in 2018 and “has made rapid progress since then,” said Ammann.

For instance, current automobiles have only 18 cubic feet per passenger, less than a toilet or a coffin, he added. In the Cruise Origin, six passengers have plenty of legroom to sit, with three facing forward and three facing backward.

“Honda, GM, and Cruise have different backgrounds,” said Takashi Onuma, chief engineer at Honda. “We all have experience developing vehicles, and we were happy to share our expertise in the 15-month development.”

“Honda wanted to make sure to lower barriers for customers,” he told The Robot Report. “A priority was to provide the most value for a totally different vehicle.”

In addition, Honda brought its experience with optimizing cabin space to the collaboration. The Cruise Origin has large windows, and its sliding doors help to avoid collisions with moving vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists. In combination with its spacious cabin, the doors are designed to be more inviting for ride sharers to hop into the vehicle.

Driverless shuttle cabin

Passenger space is optimized in Cruise Origin. Credit: The Robot Report

Like in an airplane, carry-ons can be stowed under Origin’s seats, which are wider and more comfortable than most car seats, said Bryan E. Nesbitt, executive director, global advanced design, at the GM Design Center. Cruise Origin’s trunk in the rear can hold four large bags, he noted.

In addition, the vehicle’s modular design means that branding, internal and external displays, and other features can be added later, Nesbitt said.

The design leaders at both GM and Honda said that their joint work on Cruise Origin does not affect their individual development of autonomous and electric vehicles.

For now, Cruise is focusing on producing Origin for urban ride-sharing services. However, it can envision possible configurations for carrying parcels, long-distance trips, or caravan fleets using vehicle-to-vehicle communications, Ammann said.

“Unlike existing ride sharing, which pushes people to certain areas, we can control and optimize where it goes,” said Vogt.

Cruise poised for further growth

Cruise was founded in 2013 by Vogt and Dan Kan, now chief operating officer. (Vogt delivered a keynote address at last year’s Robotics Summit & Expo, produced by WTWH Media, the parent organization of The Robot Report.)

Cruise executives

CEO Dan Ammann, CTO Kyle Vogt, and COO Dan Kan. Source: Cruise

GM acquired Cruise in 2016, and after its latest funding round of $1.15 billion in May 2019, the company was valued at $19 billion. The company has expanded to about 30 locations around San Francisco and thanked its 1,500 employees, many of whom were at the event.

We couldn’t have made it to this point without the 1,500+ Cruisers who work tirelessly everyday. Let’s continue to drive life in our cities forward together! pic.twitter.com/t5MpXf72Bi

— Cruise (@Cruise) January 22, 2020

By producing a vehicle at half the cost of a conventional sport-utility vehicle, extending its useful lifespan with modularity, and achieving higher utilization rates than cars that spend 95% of their time parked, Cruise should be able to reduce transportation costs, said Ammann. The key will be making ride sharing more appealing with an inviting design, safe autonomous transport, and constant hardware and software updates.

Although the Cruise executives declined to specify locations or a timeline for Origin production, exact price points, or availability of its smartphone app-based service, they did say they would have more announcements in the coming months. They’ll also have to demonstrate its value in comparison with other autonomous shuttles and the consumer tradeoffs that Ammann described.

Thanks to GM and Honda’s design and manufacturing experience, Ammann said Cruise expects to be able to deploy at scale quickly. “There’s no doubt that the plan we’ve laid out is ambitious, but we’re just beginning with Origin,” he said.

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