clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Cruise postpones plan to launch driverless taxi service in 2019

New, 10 comments

The GM subsidiary had planned to debut a self-driving ride-hailing service in San Francisco by the end of 2019

Image: GM

Cruise will miss its goal of launching a large-scale self-driving taxi service in 2019, the GM subsidiary’s CEO Dan Ammann said in an interview Tuesday. The company plans to dramatically increase the number of its autonomous test vehicles on the road in San Francisco, but will not be offering rides to regular people this year.

Previously, GM executives told investors that its autonomous ride-hailing service would be open to the public by the end of this year. Now it seems as if Cruise is moving away from deadlines and launch dates altogether. Ammann, GM’s former president who now leads its autonomous vehicle unit in San Francisco, wouldn’t even commit to launching the service next year, in 2020.

“Our goal is to get there as soon as possible,” Ammann said. “We want that moment to come as quickly as we can. But everything that we do right now is going to be gated by safety. And that’s why we’re increasing our testing and validation mileage just to get to that point as rapidly as possible.”

Mirroring the self-driving industry as a whole, Cruise’s hurdles have been both technological and regulatory. Recent reports characterize the company’s vehicles as slow with erratic maneuvers. According to a recent story in The Information, there have been “near collisions with other vehicles, strange steering, or unexpected braking.” A report by Reuters from last year said Cruise’s vehicles have experienced difficulty identifying whether objects in the road are in motion. Ammann called both reports “out-of-date, out-of-context, incomplete, and in some cases, flat-out wrong.”

“Everything we’ve done over the last few years has been to position us to do this safely, and to be in position to take it to very large scale,” Ammann said, “when we’re ready to go.”

Cruise is still waiting for the federal government to accept or reject its request to deploy a fleet of fully driverless Chevy Bolt vehicles without steering wheels or pedals. The request was in limbo until this past March, when the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it would solicit public comments and conduct a review. That process concluded in May, and now Cruise is waiting for a final verdict. “We’re in dialogue with them,” Ammann said of NHTSA. “And nothing further to comment on at this point.”

This isn’t the first setback for Cruise, the autonomous vehicle company purchased by GM for $1 billion in 2016. Two years ago, the company claimed that it would be the first AV company to test its vehicles in New York City, but those plans fizzled out after the company failed to gain regulatory approval from the state government.

When it predicted that it would launch in 2019, GM was under enormous pressure to keep up with its rivals, including Ford and Alphabet’s Waymo. Just weeks before GM executives told investors on an earnings call that it was aiming for a 2019 launch, Waymo demonstrated its fully driverless vehicles on a closed course in Central California to a number of media outlets (including The Verge). And Ford was outlining plans to ramp up its own testing through its startup, Argo AI.

But a lot has happened since then. In March 2018, a self-driving Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. Waymo is still testing its fully driverless vehicles without safety drivers on public roads, but not as part of its commercial ride-hailing service. The Alphabet subsidiary launched a commercial ride-hailing service last year, but it’s limited to about 1,000 riders. Predictions about a wave of driverless cars in cities around the world have mostly failed to materialize.

It’s not all bad news, though: Ammann confirmed that San Francisco, where the majority of the company’s vehicles are being tested, will be where the ride-hailing service eventually debuts. (Cruise is also testing in Arizona and Michigan.) In order to rack up the miles needed to gain the confidence to launch, Cruise plans to increase the size of its test fleet that’s operating on the city’s hilly streets over the next few months. It will also host community events to answer questions from residents of San Francisco who, in some respects, are the company’s unwitting test subjects in its public self-driving experiments.

“You’re going to see a lot more Cruise cars on the road,” Ammann said. “I think we’re already sort of fairly prevalent, but you’re going to see a significant increase of cars on the road.”

Cruise has grown in size over the last three years, from 40 employees in 2016 to 1,500 today. Those workers are currently beta-testing the company’s ride-hailing service, complete with its own Uber-like app. The service is available seven days a week, allowing Cruise to evaluate how people use autonomous vehicles as a primary mode of transportation.

After a decade of huge investments and breathless coverage in the media, driverless cars — the car that can go anywhere, without human involvement — remain delayed indefinitely. Despite Elon Musk’s boast that he will put over a million robot taxis on the road by the end of next year, most operators are dialing back expectations. Even Waymo CEO John Krafcik, the guy in charge of the company seen has having the most advanced technology, said last year, “Autonomy always will have some constraints.”

Cruise is just the latest company to rein in its own predictions. But delaying the launch won’t hurt the company’s bottom line. Cruise has plenty of runway after raising $7.25 billion over the last year from SoftBank Vision Fund, T. Rowe Price, Honda, and others. Much of that money will be needed for the company’s ambitious vehicle development plans. In October, GM said it would team up with Honda to design a self-driving car without traditional controls. That will be in addition to the steering wheel-less Chevy Bolt that Cruise is working on with GM.

Ammann said the partnership with Honda will allow Cruise to “completely redefine what a vehicle looks like, because we’re released from the constraints of the typical layout.”