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GM Cruise Delays the Launch of its Commercial Robotaxi Service in San Francisco

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【Summary】GM's self-driving division Cruise said on Wednesday it was delaying the commercial deployment of cars past its target of 2019, as more testing of the vehicles was required. Cruise is testing its fleet of self-driving Chevy Bolt EVs in San Francisco for a planned autonomous ride-hailing service.

Eric Walz    Jul 24, 2019 11:00 AM PT
GM Cruise Delays the Launch of its Commercial Robotaxi Service in San Francisco
A self-driving Chevy Bolt EV developed by Cruise and GM driving in San Francisco.

There is much hype about self-driving cars and automakers and tech companies are spending billions to be the first to successfully deploy driverless cars on public roads. In Feb 2016, General Motors invested over $1 billion in relatively unknown San Francisco-based startup Cruise Automation with the hopes of jumpstarting its own self driving car efforts. 

Since 2016, the two companies have been working together with the aim of launching a commercial robotaxi service this year using driverless technology developed by Cruise. Now the compnay's CEO says that it won't happen this year. Cruise, said on Wednesday it was delaying the commercial deployment of its cars past its target of 2019, as more testing of the vehicles was required.

Cruise is currently testing its fleet of self-driving Chevy Bolt EVs in San Francisco for the planned autonomous ride-hailing service.

In a blog post today on Medium, Cruise Chief Executive Officer and former GM President Dan Ammann wrote "In order to reach the level of performance and safety validation required to deploy a fully driverless service in San Francisco, we will be significantly increasing our testing and validation miles over the balance of this year, which has the effect of carrying the timing of fully driverless deployment beyond the end of the year."

Ammann said the company would expand its testing in San Francisco where it has been operating for the past 4 years. He said the city is one of the most challenging environments for a self-driving car to operate in.

Ammann wrote that testing in the city is "40 times more challenging than a simple suburban setting. When we can safely deploy at scale in San Francisco, we will be able to more quickly expand everywhere else." 

Ammann did not say when the company now expects to deploy a commercial ride-hailing service with GM using self-driving vehicles developed by Cruise, and wrote "Cruise would launch its commercial service when it was sure the vehicles would be safe."

gm-cruise-av-e1515761360705.jpg

A Chevy Bolt EV built without human controls for a commerical ride-hailing service.

Cruise is chasing Waymo's big lead in the development of self-driving cars. Waymo spun out of Google's early self-driving car program and the company is launching an autonomous ride-hailing service in Arizona where it is testing its fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans. The pilot began last year, allowing a select group of "early riders" to summon a ride in one of Waymo's self-driving minivans. Waymo plans to expand the service to Mountain View, California.

Waymo announced earlier this month that its autonomous fleet has surpassed 10 million miles of real world driving and over 10 billion more in simulation.

Cruise has emerged as one of the most well funded tech companies working on autonomous driving. The company raised $7.25 billion during the past year from major investors, including SoftBank, Honda Motor Co and investment firm T. Rowe Price. 

However, the company, as well as the entire automotive industry, is proceeding cautiously after a self-driving Uber vehicle fatally struck a pedestrian in Arizona in March 2018. The vehicle was operating in autonomous mode at the time and failed to stop for the pedestrian in the roadway.

It was believed to be the first fatality involving a self-driving vehicle and the incident brought attention to the safety of autonomous vehicles operating on public roads.

"When you're working on the large scale deployment of mission critical safety systems, the mindset of ‘move fast and break things' certainly doesn't cut it," Ammann wrote in his blog post.

GM rival Ford Motor Co also pushed forward its timeline for deploying self-driving cars. Speaking at a event in Detroit in April, Ford CEO Jim Hackett told the audience that "We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles." 

Ford still plans on launching its self-driving car fleet in 2021, but the areas they will operate in will be limited. Hackett said that "its applications will be narrow, what we call geo-fenced, because the problem is so complex."

Ammann, who took over as Cruise's chief executive last November agrees. He told Reuters last year that developing self-driving cars capable of safely navigating urban traffic was "the engineering challenge of our generation."

Cruise is Developing Autonomous EVs with GM & Honda

Cruise is also working with GM and Honda engineers to develop the next-generation of electric and autonomous vehicles, Ammann said.

"This is not a concept car — hundreds of the best Honda, GM and Cruise engineers are working together on-site in Warren, Michigan, where they are deep into the vehicle development process. This new vehicle completely reimagines from the ground up what a car can be and we can't wait to share more in the near future," Ammann wrote.

GM has sought clearance from federal safety regulators for self-driving cars that do not have conventional driver controls such as a steering wheel or brake pedal. However, The U.S. Department of Transportation has delayed action on GM's petition to test such vehicles for more than a year, and earlier this year said it would seek public comments on the proposal.

In addition the planned robotaxi service, Cruise is investing in EV charging infrastructure to support the commercial deployment of electric vehicles. Ammann said that Cruise owns nearly 40 percent of all EV fast chargers in San Francisco, and that the company is building the largest EV fast charger station in the country in the city.

In the meantime, Cruise is also hoping the public will become more comfortable with its self-driving cars in San Francisco as the company expands its testing in the city.

In today's blog post, Ammann wrote "We will significantly increase Cruise's presence in the community. We'll be sharing more information on how our cars work through education, outreach and live events at iconic places like the California Academy of Sciences where people can check out our cars, ask questions and share their feedback with us."

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