Autonomous car

Meet GM’s Cruise Origin of the Autonomous Species

Cruise Automation, the GM self-driving-car subsidiary, showed off its latest and most solid self-driving car yet this week, the Cruise Origin. The Origin is both electric and autonomous. The Origin is equally defined by what the vehicle is not: your personal self-driver you put away at day’s end. Instead, it’s meant to be a six-person taxi for ride shares in and around urban areas such as San Francisco, the company’s HQ and site of the unveiling Tuesday. It is also not going to have a steering wheel, meaning the Cruise Origin goes straight to Level 5 (or Level 4 within defined areas) autonomous driving.

The event was not, as well, an Elon Musk Tesla revival-tent unveiling or a Donald Trump rally. Instead, it was relatively low key and there were no big promises. Cruise executives only said prototypes, not production cars, are due “in the near future” and cautioned that “our work is far from done.”

Cruise Origin concept in a city setting.

The Cruise Origin shown this week is a boxy, van-like vehicle and there is a clear difference between front and back, in part to help other cars with retro features (that is, human drivers) cue themselves into the direction a stopped Origin would take upon moving off. There is a flat floor. There is no steering wheel or pedals. There are lots of lidar and sensor pods at the four corners of the vehicle.

Level 5 automation means a vehicle that can go everywhere without need for a driver, and thus without need for a steering wheel, throttle, or brake pedal. Level 4 is full automation but only on some roads, initially meaning limited access highways such as interstates. Cruise Automation is looking at fully automated vehicles where the set of self-drivable roads is every major street in an urban area. Production cars are at Level 2 currently, meaning the car can drive itself on an interstate but can’t deal with off-ramps, lane changes (some can, some can’t), or stalled cars in the roadway, so there has to be a driver behind the wheel more-or-less paying attention.

Who Is Cruise Automation?

Here’s a quick GM/ Cruise backgrounder to help you come up to speed: General Motors, once the world’s largest automobile company, is rebounding and doing good work on key issues of the 21st century: safety, reduced-emissions vehicles, autonomy, and promoting women to positions of leadership. The new GM finds Asia a huge market, as do other automakers.

The old GM often created its own technology rather than use someone else’s. It has been conceptualizing electric vehicles since 1990 and building them since 1996 (the EV-1 with lead-acid and then nickel-metal hydride batteries).

Cruise Automation early autonomous car based on the Chevrolet Bolt EV.

Cruise Automation is a Bay Area company out of the Y-Combinator startup accelerator; Cruise hoped to retrofit existing cars with semi-autonomous features for highway driving, then shifted to making EVs autonomous in urban settings. Cruise came to the attention of GM circa 2015, this at a time when boastful automakers were talking about self-driving cars in the 2018-2020 timeframe. GM bought Cruise Automation for a reported $500 million to $1 billion when it had about 50 employees. Dan Amman, president of GM (the CEO is Mary Barra), was installed as Cruise Automation president in 2018. Now Cruise says it has about 1,000 employees in San Francisco and 100-200 employees in Seattle. It also has investment money from Softbank and Honda and a value, GM says, of about $15 billion.

At the unveiling this week and in media discussions afterward, it became clearer that GM plans to have the autonomous and EV projects within the company work together. Cruise self-driving vehicles will be electric vehicles as well. But all EVs are not going to be autonomous this decade.

GM Plans 20 EVs by 2023

GM has said it will have 20 new electric vehicles by 2023. That includes a new Chevrolet EV this year and an electric pickup truck by 2021.

Meanwhile, GM has a tie-in with Korea’s LG Chem to create its own Gigafactory, so to speak, in Lordstown, Ohio, with an annual capacity of 30-gigawatt-hours. A gigawatt is a billion watts (10 to the ninth power) and a big EV battery would be 100 kWh, or 100,000-watt-hours, or three days of usage in a mainstream US house. Divide one by the other and you come up with the capacity at Lordstown to build 300,000 100-kWh battery packs a year. Basically, a gigawatt-hour factory supplies 10,000 cars.

That’s the future plan. Meanwhile, EVs are still slow sellers in the US, other than Tesla. GM is about to run out of federal tax credits it can offer; the final $1,875 credit, available a year after the automaker hits the 200,000 sales cap, ends in April. For GM, EV sales are so soft it’s possible to get a $10,000 credit (GM to buyer, not Uncle Sam to buyer) of about $10,000.

So while GM and Cruise Automation are gung-ho on autonomy, within GM there are mixed emotions about EVs. Or there was last fall, when GM president Mark Reuss did an op-ed piece on CNN’s website,  “Electric Cars Won’t Go Mainstream Until We Fix These Problems.” The problems are range, charging infrastructure, and cost.

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