Cruise Looks To The Skies As It Readies Robotaxi Service
Cruise, the autonomous driving company backed by General Motors, is looking beyond the auto and tech industries as it designs a robotic taxi service that will launch in San Francisco, tapping airline industry veterans with expertise in passenger experience and fleet maintenance.
The San Francisco-based company in January hired Gil West to be its chief operating officer, following his retirement from Delta Air Lines where he’d also served as COO and senior executive vice president. Cruise also recently added two other airline executives—Anthony Gregory who’d been with Southwest Airlines and former Virgin Atlantic COO Phil Maher—to serve as its vice presidents of market development and central operations. The company’s focus on utilizing airline industry veterans stems from similarities between that industry and the emerging autonomous ride business, West tells Forbes.
“There’s safety. The aviation model is important here with an approach and processes that were developed over the last 100 years. That overlaps with exactly what we're doing in the autonomous space. Airlines are operationally intensive, and that’s the goal for Cruise, with high-tech vehicles engineered right for a purpose—airplanes and autonomous vehicles,” West said.
“And it’s not just the technology. It’s the ability to last decades. In the airlines’ case that can be 30, even 40 years. For autonomous vehicles we expect them to run a million-plus miles.”
Cruise tests autonomous electric Chevrolet Bolts almost exclusively in San Francisco and has been operating vehicles there without a safety driver behind the wheel since December 2020. And though it has received permission from California to pick up passengers in its robotaxis, state rules don’t yet allow it to charge for those rides. The company has announced plans to expand into Dubai by 2023, and though Cruise hasn’t set a date for the start of commercial ride services in the U.S. it may not be that far off.
“It’s months, not years,” West said, without elaborating.
Backed by Honda, SoftBank and Walmart along with General Motors, Cruise has nearly 2,000 employees and is among the world’s best-funded autonomous tech companies, having raised about $11 billion. It’s competing with companies including Alphabet’s Waymo, Ford- and Volkswagen-back Argo AI, Amazon’s Zoox and Hyundai Motor-affiliated Motional for large-scale commercialization of on-demand robotaxis over the next few years.
Waymo currently operates the only paid, autonomous ride service in the U.S. (without backup human drivers), hauling passengers around suburban Phoenix in a fleet of hundreds of Pacifica Hybrid minivans from Stellantis. Much like the in-flight safety videos used by airlines, the Alphabet unit begins rides with an explanatory video going over the basics of its robotaxis.
Cruise unveiled the Origin in January 2020, a purpose-built electric van developed by GM and Honda that will be the core model in its fleet when its ride business launches. And like fleets of aircraft operated by airlines, Origin is designed for long-term, flexible use and easy maintenance.
The electric vehicles will be built using a relatively low-cost platform and will allow for easy swapping and upgrades of sensors including laser lidar, radar and cameras and easy-to-replace body panels. Vehicle doors are large to allow replacement and upgrades of interior flooring, ceilings and seating and the use of high-durability plastics will allow for easy cleaning.
He declined to say how many of the vehicles Cruise will eventually operate, though the first of 100 pre-production Origin units are being built now and will soon undergo road and durability testing. They’ll eventually be produced at GM’s dedicated electric vehicle “Factory Zero” Detroit-Hamtramck plant in Michigan from 2023.
“Design with both capex and opex in mind is fundamental to the vehicle. Longevity plays a huge role in them and maintainability and reliability are key to the equation too,” West said. “Just like the airlines, we’re fanatics about utilization.”
“The more hours per day you can operate, the more utility you can get out of the vehicles, the fewer vehicles you need and you’re really utilizing the ones you have. We're going to be fanatical on a continuous improvement basis.”