Cruise Automation, a self-driving tech startup, was founded in 2013 and bought by General Motors in 2016. GM remains a majority shareholder, but Cruise (it has dropped Automation from its name) operates independently, with 1,600 employees. It is headquartered in San Francisco, where it does much of its on-road testing with modified Chevrolet Bolts, and will soon be adding the Cruise Origin driverless vehicle. We caught up with Mohamed “Mo” ElShenawy, Cruise’s senior vice president of engineering.
How has having GM as a partner changed the trajectory of what you’re able to do? We continue to work as an independent Silicon Valley tech company, with innovation as the key ingredient. [Autonomous vehicle] software had never been invented before, and we realized to get there we have to experiment, hire the best talent in the tech industry, and compete for it. These aspects of Cruise remain the same. At the same time, partnering with GM provides us an advantage that many others don’t have, to design an [autonomous] vehicle from the ground up with scale and cost targets that would make this a viable business. The recent partnership with Microsoft sets us up for even more success.
How many self-driving vehicles will you have on the road in five years? The key mission is changing the face of transportation, having our entire fleet of self-driving vehicles, all electric, powered by renewable energy. This race is about getting us into tens of cities with hundreds of thousands of vehicles. We’re definitely [going] after launching this on a large scale.
What are you testing now? We are developing our software in a way that is unique and portable between different generations of platforms. We are testing self-driving vehicles designed from the ground up with GM and Honda, which is an amazing advantage to be able to build the new Origin to scale. Right now, we are testing the latest-generation Bolts. Our tech is continuously updating.
Are there steering wheels and pedals in the Bolts being tested, but no drivers? We have safety drivers behind the wheel, but we started testing with no drivers after we received our permit in November 2020. We have both.
Are you still on track to start building the Origin at GM’s Hamtramck, Michigan, plant this year? We are working with GM. Factory Zero in Detroit is finalizing their tooling, and we’re going to be able to produce hundreds of thousands of these vehicles very soon.
When does the first production Origin come off of the line? We are putting safety as our key target for launch, rather than an arbitrary date. The community deserves a service that is safer, more reliable than humans, and we’re putting all our attention into empirical measurement of that.
Are Origin prototypes testing on the road yet? We’re testing some at [GM’s] Milford Proving Ground, but we’re not testing them on public roads.
Will the production Origin be different from the one we saw a year ago? It’s pretty much going to be the same, although this pandemic opened our eyes into many things we hadn’t been thinking about before. Looking at research from the CDC and World Health Organization, we have Harvard epidemiologists working on reconsidering the interior design to curb the spread of this virus. That’s not only interior design but also the end-to-end user experience. This was a great opportunity for us to revisit and rethink some of these concepts.
The Origin seats six, three to a seat. What are some of the things you can do? There will be more details about this later. We have specialists working on this and considering the research, but there will be different configurations, including middle sections with plexiglass, and disinfectants and things like that. But they’re still working, so I don’t want to officially state anything that hasn’t been finalized yet.
Are plans for an Origin delivery van still in the works? Yeah. Our focus is mainly on both delivery and rideshare programs. We see a lot of opportunities in these two fields.
Do both versions of Origin launch at the same time early next year? Yes, the [delivery version] is going to appear with the Origins. We’re not going to see [them] on the streets this year.
How close are you to commercialization? We’re actually very, very close. We have been exponentially progressing year after year, and we plan to start early commercialization this year. But the key focus for us is on safety. Once we surpass human performance, we’re going to be ready to launch and commercialize, of course with our permits in place.
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