GM's Autonomous Driving Division Cruise Deploys its Self-driving Vehicles in San Francisco Without Human Backup

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【Summary】GM’s Autonomous Driving Division Cruise said it was deploying five self-driving vehicles in San Francisco without human backup drivers. Cruise chief executive Dan Ammann made the announcement in a conference call Wednesday morning. Cruise was granted a permit in October that allows it to test autonomous vehicles in the city without a driver behind the wheel.

Eric Walz    Jan 15, 2021 4:05 PM PT
GM's Autonomous Driving Division Cruise Deploys its Self-driving Vehicles in San Francisco Without Human Backup

Over the past several years, residents of San Francisco have frequently spotted self-driving test vehicles roaming city streets. With its proximity to Silicon Valley, the city remains a popular test site for autonomous vehicles, with dozens of companies testing within and outside the city's boundaries.

Some of the companies that have deployed self-driving vehicles are Waymo, Lyft, Uber and General Motors' autonomous driving division Cruise. However, up until recently all of the vehicles had safety drivers behind the wheel ready to take over for any unexpected situation. 

Now California's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is issuing permits for companies to test their autonomous vehicles without human backup drivers. Cruise was granted the permit in October and now the company says it's ready to deploy them.

Cruise chief executive Dan Ammann made the announcement in a conference call Wednesday morning. 

The company said it was deploying five self-driving vehicles in San Francisco's western most Sunset District, a mostly residential area that offers a wide range of challenges. However the vehicles won't be roaming around entirely unsupervised. 

Cruise said that for now the backup drivers will be moved to the passenger seat for the initial tests. While those operators will not have easy access to the steering wheel or pedals, they are able to bring the vehicles to a complete stop if required with hardware Cruise installed in the vehicles. But the company plans to eventually remove the safety operator from the passenger seat, however it didn't say when it would do so.

San Francisco is a challenging place to test self-driving vehicles. With its steep hills and streets clogged with vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists, its a good place for companies to evaluate the performance of their driverless hardware and software. There is also the nightly layer of fog that blankets the cities most evenings, a weather trait that's part of the city's allure, but difficult for a self-drving vehicle's perception systems to contend with.

Cruise is no stranger to San Francisco. The company was testing autonomous vehicles in the city since 2015, when its was a relatively unknown autonomous driving startup. GM took a majority stake in Cruise in Feb 2016 for a reported $1 billion so it could help the automaker jumpstart its own autonomous driving development. Now after five years and 2 million miles of testing in San Francisco, the company says its ready to remove safety drivers from behind the wheel. 

Cruise is testing autonomous vehicles for a planned commercial robotaxi service using a fleet of self-driving Chevy Bolt EVs supplied by GM and outfitted for autonomous driving by Cruise. The vehicles are purpose-built with the hardware for self-driving pre-installed at a dedicated GM manufacturing plant. 

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. A separate permit is required to charge the public for rides in autonomous vehicles in California, according to state officials. That permit is obviously harder to obtain.

California has issued the driverless test permits to four other companies. They are Waymo, Zoox, AutoX and Nuro, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles website which lists the current permit holders. Cruise obtained its permit in October. 

"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 at the time.

For the past several years, Cruise has operated around 180 self-driving Chevy Bolt EVs in San Francisco. A majority of these vehicles will continue to operate with human backup. The permit limits Cruise to deploy just five vehicles without a safety driver on board.

Although Cruise is still in the development stage of a commercial robotaxi 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 is launching 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.

Cruise is also working with U.S. retail giant Walmart Inc. Last month, Walmart announced its launching an autonomous delivery pilot with Cruise. The pilot program is set to begin early next year in Scottsdale, Arizona.

As part of the pilot, customers can place an order from their local Walmart store and have it delivered, contact-free, via one of Cruise's fully-electric self-driving vehicles. 

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