GM-backed Cruise is “just days away” from regulatory approval to begin mass production of its fully autonomous vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals, the company’s CEO, Kyle Vogt, said at an investor conference Thursday.
Cruise first unveiled the Origin robotaxi in early 2020 as a bus-like vehicle built for the sole purpose of shuttling people around in a city autonomously. But since then, the company has been mired in a lengthy regulatory process before it can begin mass production.
The vehicle’s lack of traditional human controls means that Cruise needs an exemption from the federal government’s motor vehicle safety standards, which require vehicles to have a steering wheel and pedals. The Origin has neither.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) only grants 2,500 such exemptions a year. There is legislation to increase that number to 25,000, but it is currently stalled in the Senate.
The vehicle’s lack of traditional human controls means that Cruise needs an exemption from the federal government
But that process may be nearing an end. Vogt said that NHTSA is expected to make a decision soon on the company’s request, perhaps sometime later this month.
“The Origin does require a special approval because it doesn’t have a steering wheel,” Vogt said at a Goldman Sachs event. “So it’s really hard to be in compliance with all the safety regulations around steering wheels if you don’t have one.”
Cruise “asked for an exemption ... from this and that’s what we’re expecting any day, which would be an endorsement of our approach to safety for that that vehicle.”
But Vogt may have spoken too soon. “No agency decision to grant or deny the petition submitted by GM has been reached nor has a deadline been set for such a decision,” a NHTSA spokesperson told The Verge.
GM’s regulatory approval likely hinges on how the company responds to questions surrounding the safety of its current crop of autonomous vehicles. In San Francisco, where Cruise says it operate nearly 400 fully driverless Chevy Bolt vehicles, the company has faced questions from city officials about incidents involving traffic jams and blocked emergency responders. Cruise was forced to reduce its fleet size after one of its vehicles collided with a fire truck, injuring a passenger.
GM’s regulatory approval likely hinges on how the company responds to questions surrounding the safety of its current crop of autonomous vehicles
Vogt said he was confident that Cruise’s fleet size would return to its normal size after regulators viewed the data. “This is sort of simple logic that if there are rare events that can happen on the road, we’re probably going to see him first,” he said. “And that’s what has happened here.”
Vogt also said the novelty of the technology is why the media covers Cruise’s vehicles differently than they do with human-driven cars. “We’re at a unique moment in time, where anything an AV does, even if it is awkward or something interesting or ... maybe a human wouldn’t do it exactly that way, it becomes a national headline,” he said.
Critics say the cars get easily confused by common situations on city streets. Some activists have taken to placing orange cones on the hoods of Cruise’s vehicles in order to disable them as a form of protest. But Vogt said that too much pushback risks stalling important technological advancements that could save lives.
“I worry that we’re going to set society back a decade when it comes to road safety,” he said, “that’s just something we can’t do.”
UPDATE September 7th 4:42PM ET: This story has been updated to include a statement from NHTSA.