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GM's Autonomous Driving Division Cruise Granted Permit to Deploy its Self-Driving Vehicles in San Francisco Without Safety Drivers Onboard

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【Summary】In a blog post on Thursday, GM’s autonomous driving division Cruise announced it was granted a permit to operate its self-driving vehicles without a human safety driver behind the wheel, becoming the fifth company granted the new permit in California. However, Cruise will be the first to deploy autonomous vehicles without safety drivers within the city of San Francisco.

FutureCar Staff    Oct 15, 2020 3:50 PM PT
GM's Autonomous Driving Division Cruise Granted Permit to Deploy its Self-Driving Vehicles in San Francisco Without Safety Drivers Onboard
A self-driving Chevy Bolt EV built by General Motors and Cruise.

Although the San Francisco Bay Area is crowded with autonomous vehicles being operated by automakers, tech companies and startups, there are safety drivers behind the wheel of most of them, which is a requirement unless a company holds the necessary state permit to remove them.

So far, only a handful of companies have been granted a permit from California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to operate the vehicle without safety drivers on board, the latest company to join the list is General Motors' autonomous driving unit Cruise LLC.

In a blog post on Thursday, Cruise announced it was granted a permit Thursday to operate its self-driving vehicles without a human safety driver behind the wheel, becoming the fifth company granted the new permit. 

Cruise joins AutoX, Nuro, Zoox and Alphabet subsidiary Waymo that were granted a permit to test autonomous vehicle switch safety drivers. However, Cruise will be the first to deploy its autonomous vehicles within the city of San Francisco.

"We're not the first company to receive this permit, but we're going to be the first to put it to use on the streets of a major U.S. city," said Cruise Chief Executive Dan Annmann.

Cruise is majority owned by U.S. automaker General Motors. The automaker invested $1 billion in the San Francisco startup in 2016 in order to jumpstart its own autonomous driving efforts. Since then, the startup has been busy developing self-driving technology for GM to support its future mobility endeavors.  

Cruise also counts Japan's Honda Motor Co and SoftBank Group as investors. 

Cruise developed its Origin autonomous shuttle together with Honda that it plans to deploy as part of a commercial robotaxi service. The multi-passenger shuttle is designed to be fully autonomous and has no steering wheel or brake pedals. The Origin shuttle was revealed in January at a media event in San Francisco.

Removing the safety drivers in an important first step for Cruise as it continues to refine its software for an eventual commercial launch. For the time being, Cruise won't be picking up passengers though. For any of the companies to start charging for rides in autonomous vehicles in California, a separate permit is required, according to state officials.

To prepare for its commercial robotaxi launch, Cruise is working on improving its ride hailing app. The app currently allows Cruise employees to book free rides in San Francisco as part of the testing phase. 

For the past several years, Cruise has operated around 180 self-driving Chevy Bolt EVs in San Francisco. All of the vehicles have a safety driver behind the wheel. But with the new permit they won't all be deployed on San Francisco streets at once. The driverless permit limits Cruise to deploy just five vehicles without a safety driver on board.

The new permit allows Cruise to travel anywhere within San Francisco at a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour. The cars can also be deployed at night without restrictions.

"Before the end of the year, we'll be sending cars out onto the streets of SF — without gasoline and without anyone at the wheel. Because safely removing the driver is the true benchmark of a self-driving car," Ammann wrote in a blog post.

Although Cruise is still in the development stage of a commercial launch, the company is already facing competition from a formidable rival Waymo, the company that spun out of Google's self-driving car project. 

Waymo plans to launch a commercial robotaxi service in the Phoenix metro area. The company has been testing its autonomous vehicles in Arizona for the past several years. It too will offer rides in vehicles without drivers onboard.

Ammann said the hilly city of San Francisco is one of the most challenging environments for a self-driving car to operate in. But a successful launch of a commercial robotaxi service in the city will prepare Cruise to more easily deploy its vehicles in less challenging environments, which is what Waymo is doing in Arizona. 

In a blog post last year, 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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