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Cruise Debuts the 'Origin', an Autonomous Urban Robotaxi Built for Ride-Hailing

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【Summary】Cruise debuted its fully-autonomous Origin shuttle at a media event last night in San Francisco. The futuristic self-driving shuttle was heavily engineered by Honda, with GM supplying the electric powertrain and Cruise tasked with developing the hardware and autonomous driving systems.

Eric Walz    Jan 22, 2020 10:05 AM PT
Cruise Debuts the 'Origin', an Autonomous Urban Robotaxi Built for Ride-Hailing

What has San Francisco-based autonomous driving startup Cruise been working on since being acquired by General Motors in 2016? Besides developing self-driving cars with GM for a planned robotaxi service, the two companies have partnered with Honda to build an electric, autonomous shuttle that may one day replace the personally owned automobile with a lower cost and safer way to get around.

Cruise debuted its fully-autonomous Origin shuttle at a media event last night in San Francisco. The futuristic self-driving shuttle was heavily engineered by Honda, with GM supplying the electric powertrain and Cruise tasked with developing the hardware and autonomous driving systems.

Cruise intended to reimagine transportation with the Origin, but didn't just want to improve on the traditional car. Instead the company envisioned the Origin as new modern form of shared transportation built on an entirely new platform.

Cruise was founded in 2013. In 2016, the startup was acquired by Detroit-based automaker GM in February 2016 for more than $1 billion in cash and stock. Since then, the startup has been busy developing its self-driving technology for GM to support its future mobility endeavors. 

The new Origin EV will be the first production vehicle purposefully built by a global automaker without a steering wheel or brake pedals or any other human controls.

"With our deep partnerships with GM and Honda, we have roots in the automotive industry. But we didn't just want to improve on the car. We wanted to reimagine transportation as if the car had never existed." wrote Cruise CEO and former GM president Dan Ammann in a blog post.

The Origin will eventually will be put into service in a robotaxi platform that Cruise and GM are planning to launch in San Francisco and other cities across the U.S. The vehicle is designed for commercial use and can be outfitted to carry passengers or cargo. 

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Cruise president and co-founder Kyle Voght showing off the Origin last night in San Francisco.

Cruise is also working on an app that riders can use to hail a self-driving Origin, just like Uber's app works. Cruise built an entire ride-hailing ecosystem from end-to-end, ensuring that every rider has the same seemless experience.

The Cruise Origin fits six passengers and is roomy and comfortable inside, with minimalist design throughout. The Origin is no bigger than an average SUV.  However, without the design limitations of an engine, exhaust system, and fuel tank and controls of a traditional vehicle, Cruise, GM and Honda were able to design the Origin making full use of the space it takes up on the road.

Ammann said that the shuttle was designed with passenger comfort in mind, unlike traditional cars where the passenger compartment is designed around the vehicle's mechanical systems. Without human controls and an internal combustion engine to work around, the engineers at Honda and GM, were really able to open up the passenger space significantly.

In addition to providing passengers with a comfortable space, the Origin feels bigger once inside, thanks to large windows.  Each seat has its own panel with charging ports for electronic devices. Every seat has extra-legroom. And they all face each other, so riders can have a conversation with other riders.

One important feature for urban operations is that the Orgin's doors don't hinge outward. They slide open, so bicyclists or electric scooter riders are safer. The doors open wide enough so one passenger can enter in while another person exits.

"When your getting in someone else can get out, which is great if you're sharing a ride." said Cruise president and co-founder Kyle Voght.

The Origin was also engineered to be upgraded in the future as newer technology is developed.  The vehicle's body can be reused and outfitted with new and improved sensor technology as its developed.

The Origin's Cameras act as Eyes

One of the most innovative features on the Origin is its robotic cameras, which function like a pair of eyes. The entire forward-facing camera assembly can rotate to scan left and right very rapidly, focusing on people or objects around the vehicle. Voght said the camera provide night vision like an owl.

Voght said that the camera system operates beyond human capabilities. Its multi-layered suite of sensors sees broader wavelength spectrum than humans can. This allows the Origin to see at night and through poor weather conditions.

Using AI, the camera system processes decisions faster than the human brain can, said Voght. 

If a pedestrian is observed, the entire camera assembly can quickly rotate to point in the person's direction. The cameras are designed to keep track of multiple people and objects at the same time.

Voght said the fully-autonomous Origin delivers "super-human performance at an extremely low cost."

Cruise has been operating a fleet of autonomous Chevy Bolt EVs in San Francisco for the past three years to gather data for its planned robotaxi service. While the cars are capable of self-driving on their own, human operators sit behind the wheel to monitor them, ready to take over if something unexpected happens, such as a blocked lane ahead.

Amman said the hilly city of San Francisco is one of the most challenging environments for a self-driving car to operate in and Cruise would launch its driverless vehicles "when it was sure the vehicles would be safe."

In a July 2019 blog post, 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." 

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The Cruise Origin

Voght said that the current Cruise fleet of Chevy Bolt EVs has traveled over one million miles over the past year alone in San Francisco while operating in autonomous mode, collecting valuable data along the way so its fleet of vehicles can safely navigate without human assistance. Cruise build and maintains its own HD maps of the city for autonomous driving.

GM was at odds with U.S. regulators early last year when is first announced plans to build a version of the Chevy Bolt EV with Cruise without a steering wheel or pedals for its planned robotaxi service. However, current regulations do not allow passenger cars on the road without human controls, so GM was forced to put its Robotaxi Bolt launch on hold, at least temporarily.

GM argues that many of these human-operated systems are not required for an autonomous car and is pushing for new regulations so it can built ride-hailing vehicles that carry passengers instead of being built around a driver that's not needed.

Cruise did not say how many Origin vehicles its plans to build or when or where they will be first deployed. That decision will be up to regulators. Ammann did say that Cruise would begin building prototypes of the Origin "in the near future."

Since being acquired by GM, Cruise has secured significant funding. GM said it raised $7.25 billion for Cruise over the past four years alone. The remaining funding comes from existing investors SoftBank Vision Fund and Honda, as well as some new institutional investors. Cruise is now valued at $19 billion as it looks to take on Waymo in the autonomous ride-hailing space.

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