Enlarge /. Cruise CTO Kyle Vogt and Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron.
Two weeks ago I wrote about reports that Cruise – a self-driving company jointly owned by GM and Honda – was about to buy the startup Voyage. Now it's official: Cruise is acquiring Voyage.
Voyage's strategy was to launch its first self-driving taxi service in the Villages, a huge Florida community of senior citizens. The villages are big enough that people need a car to get around, but many of their residents are at or near the age at which they cannot drive safely. The community had a speed limit of 25 mph, which reduces the risk of someone being killed if a self-driving car malfunctions.
In an article two years ago, I suggested that focusing on a relatively simple application of this self-driving technology could help a startup like Voyage thrive while its bigger rivals floundered. I argued that once a company like Voyage has a profitable commercial service in a limited area, it would be relatively easy to expand to a larger area and faster speeds over time.
While getting started in the villages could be easier than tackling the suburb of Phoenix (like Google's Waymo) or urban San Francisco (like Cruise), it obviously wasn't easy enough for Voyage to deal with. For several years, Voyage has been running a service in the villages with security drivers behind the wheel. However, the company never felt ready to remove the security drivers – the crucial step in making a self-driving service economically viable.
"Self-driving technology is difficult to deploy, but it is more difficult to build a viable self-driving business," wrote Oliver Cameron, CEO of Voyage, on his blog post announcing the acquisition.
Meanwhile, Waymo finally launched a completely driverless commercial service in the suburbs of Phoenix last October – albeit with a small geographic footprint. We haven't heard much about the company's expansion plans since then. Most of the other companies, including Cruise, seem a long way from getting to that point.
All of this suggests that this may not be one of the markets where brave startups disrupt cumbersome established businesses. Industry leaders now include Waymo (owned by Google), Cruise (owned by GM and Honda), Argo (owned by Ford and Volkswagen), Zoox (owned by Amazon), Mobileye (owned by Intel ) and Motional (owned by Intel) from Hyundai and Aptiv).
There are still a handful of independent startups in the field, particularly the well-funded Aurora and Nuro. But the clock is ticking for them too.
The trip could bring important product ideas to Cruise
Acquisition announcements rarely provide information about the role the acquired company will play within the new parent company. Cameron's announcement mail is no exception. It does not say whether Voyage plans to start a driverless service in the villages. But theinformationsuperhighway's Kirsten Korosec spoke to Voyage and felt that Voyage's pilots (the main one in Florida and the other in California) were likely to end:
Voyage will not immediately cease operations in the two senior communities. However, Cruise reiterated to theinformationsuperhighway that the focus is on commercial operations in San Francisco. Inevitably, any tests or operations in the senior communities will be terminated, even though Cruise has not given a schedule.
Cameron becomes Cruise's Vice President of Product, which seems like a good role for him. At Voyage, Cameron had a knack for clearly and convincingly marketing Voyage technologies.
For example, in his contribution to the acquisition announcement, Cameron referred twice to Shield, Voyage's sophisticated emergency braking system that provides an independent safety margin in the event that a vehicle's main self-driving system fails. It's likely that positioning it as a separate technology with a memorable brand name would have helped build public confidence in the safety of Voyage's cars.
Cameron also mentions Telessist, a remote driving system that Voyage employees can use to get their cars out of difficult situations. Cameron said Voyage built the system with "real steering wheel, real pedals, real automotive grade connectors, and real automotive grade controllers" to give the best possible feedback to truckers. Many self-driving companies keep their remote control functions secret, but Oliver recognized that transparency, in turn, can build customer trust.
Cameron's acquisition line also includes an in-depth discussion of the Origin, a purpose-built driverless vehicle without a steering wheel that Cruise unveiled last year. Cameron says his team members "can use their extensive vehicle development experience to make their mark on the Cruise Origin."
So, reading between the lines, it seems like Cameron and his team could focus on helping Cruise make the jump from research and development to commercial taxi service. This sometimes requires further improvements to Cruise's self-driving technology. However, there will also be a need to carefully consider the passenger experience so that passengers can understand and trust the technology.