General Motors just announced that it is acquiring Cruise Automation, a San Francisco-based autonomous driving startup founded in 2013. Cruise's West Coast office will remain open, GM says, serving as an R&D facility for self-driving technology while working in concert with engineers at GM's other facilities.
Cruise Automation's brief existence as an independent company has been an interesting one. A graduate of startup incubator Y Combinator, it originally set out to build a retrofit kit that would allow cars already in the market to drive on highways with a high level of autonomy, not unlike what Tesla currently offers with its Autopilot feature. (We even rode in a prototype of the retrofit kit, called RP-1, in 2014.) But the $10,000 add-on — which would've required that buyers bolt a big, sensor-filled bar to the roof of their car — was probably always a tough sell, especially in light of the limitations: the kit was only compatible with a couple Audi models, and would initially only work on certain California highways. "A little over a year ago, we decided to pivot away from that when we discovered that fully driverless technology is a far larger business opportunity, and have been working on that quietly ever since," Cruise co-founder and CEO Kyle Vogt tells me. More recently, Cruise was in the news when one of its development prototypes — a specially fitted Nissan Leaf — was involved in a minor crash in San Francisco during the transition from autonomous to manual control.
GM sees ride-sharing as the big opportunity for autonomous cars
For GM, the acquisition is the latest in a spree of tech-focused announcements and spending, culminating in a recent $500 million investment in Lyft and the launch of Maven, GM's own car-sharing service. As with Ford, GM hasn't been shy about trying to take the future of transportation head-on, even in ways that don't mesh well with the auto industry's traditional business model of selling as many cars as possible: ride-hailing and car-sharing services both seek to put fewer cars on the road, for instance. If legacy automakers are going to be disrupted, the popular saying goes, they want to be the ones doing the disrupting. And with tech giants like Uber and Google charging ahead, they'll need to move fast.
GM has positioned the Lyft investment as a way to get self-driving cabs on the road more quickly, and it seems that the Cruise deal is closely aligned with that goal. "We've been really clear that we see the first large-scale deployment of autonomous vehicles being into a ride-share type of car, so we think that's the right first application," says GM President Dan Ammann. Consumer sales of autonomous cars would be "sometime after that," he says.
GM's Dan Ammann (right) poses with Cruise co-founders Daniel Kan and Kyle Vogt.
This isn't GM's first foray into autonomous driving, but it may not be as far along in the development process as it would like. It had originally intended to debut "Super Cruise," its highly automated highway driving feature, on Cadillac models this year — but it recently delayed that launch to 2017. (Interestingly, Ammann tells me that the Cruise Automation acquisition will have "no impact" on the Super Cruise launch, though it stands to reason that the two development efforts would probably converge over time.) And GM product boss Mark Reuss has said on several occasions that he'd be open to partnering with outside firms to make self-driving cars happen. But when I ask Ammann about Reuss' comments, it sounds like the tune may be changing. "I think we have, between what Cruise brings to the table and all the capabilities we have inside of GM, we have a really strong position to rapidly commercialize this technology," Ammann tells me.
"We have a really strong position to rapidly commercialize this technology."
For now, though, we wait. Across the industry, development on self-driving tech is ongoing, and substantial challenges remain: automakers have only recently begun testing in inclement weather, for example, and the regulatory picture is still pretty murky. Beyond Ammann's optimism that this technology is going to be coming quickly, GM isn't making any specific comments today about the timeline.
Terms of the deal, which is expected to close in the second quarter, weren't disclosed, but Re/code reports that the acquisition cost GM "over $1 billion."