Cruise begins driverless testing in San Francisco

Cruise Automation, the autonomous vehicle subsidiary of GM that also has backing from SoftBank Vision Fund, Honda and T. Rowe Price & Associates, has started testing what it describes as fully driverless vehicles on public roads in San Francisco, the first milestone required to secure a permit to launch a shared, commercial service that can charge for rides.

Cruise CEO Dan Ammann, who took one of the company’s first driverless ride on public streets in San Francisco’s Sunset neighborhood, called it “wildly boring” and “a humble step” towards a commercial service.

“The ride itself was extremely natural and predictable, so it was kind of boring, but in all the right ways,” Ammann said in a call with reporters Wednesday. “And our goal is to make that same experience available to as many people as possible as soon and as safely as we can; and that could either be by taking a ride, or by getting say a self-driving delivery.”

The company released Wednesday a video of its first ride — with no human safety driver behind the wheel — in the Sunset neighborhood in San Francisco. There was a human safety operator in the vehicle, sitting in the passenger seat, the video shows.

Cruise’s testing of fully autonomous vehicles is in limited geographic area and in arguably one of San Francisco’s simpler environments; the video below shows the testing was conducted at night in a less congested part of San Francisco. However, it still marks progress by the company that had once aimed to launch a commercial service by the end of 2019.

For some in the industry, the caveats of having a safety operator in the passenger seat and launching in an “easier” and small geofenced area matter. Cruise says this is just the beginning and that it will eventually expand its driverless testing area, adding in more complicated environments over time, as well as removing the safety operator from the vehicle.

“We recognize this is both a trust race as well as a tech race,” Cruise spokesperson Milin Mehta said in an email. “Given that, during the beginning of our use of this permit, we will maintain a safety operator in the passenger seat. The safety operator has the ability to bring the vehicle to a stop in the event of an emergency, but does not have access to standard driver controls. Eventually, this safety operator will be fully removed.”

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Cruise started driverless testing in November with a dedicated fleet of five autonomous vehicles. The rest of Cruise’s fleet will be used to perform its regular testing with a human safety driver, some of which are used to deliver goods to area food banks.

The California DMV, the agency that regulates autonomous vehicle testing in the state, issued Cruise a permit in October that allows the company to test five autonomous vehicles without a driver behind the wheel on specified streets within San Francisco. Cruise has had a permit to test autonomous vehicles with safety drivers behind the wheel since 2015.

In February, Cruise received a permit from the California Public Utilities Commission allowing it to transport passengers in its autonomous vehicles in the state. However, it wasn’t until November that the CPUC modified its regulations to allow properly permitted companies the ability to charge for shared driverless rides. The bar to secure the permit is higher than it was before and includes a new government approval process that some in the industry have argued adds unnecessary bureaucracy that could delay deployments by more than two years.

Government process aside, Cruise has to show data that it tested driverless rides for 30 days before it can qualify for the CPUC permit, according to state docs.

Waymo also has a driverless testing permit. The company has tested its in what it describes as fully autonomous mode on public roads without a human safety driver behind the wheel, but it has yet to remove the operator from the vehicle altogether.

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