Cruise, the self-driving company that has Honda and GM as major shareholders, has started testing self-driving Chevy bolts without anyone in the driver's seat, the company said Wednesday. A safety operator in the passenger seat has the ability to stop the car in an emergency, but not "traditional driver controls," the company said. The car is also monitored remotely.
Cruise has been testing its self-driving cars for more than 2 million miles. But like other companies with advanced self-driving technologies, Cruise must decide when and how to make the jump from testing prototypes to releasing a commercial product. If you start a product before it's finished, someone can be killed.
Cruise's leading competitor, Alphabet-owned Waymo, launched a self-driving taxi service in the suburbs of Phoenix in 2017. Waymo initially had security drivers at the wheel and the handpicked passengers were subject to confidentiality agreements. It wasn't until October 2020 – more than three years later – that Waymo finally offered the public driverless rides without NDA.
Cruise didn't get as far as Waymo. There is still a security operator in the passenger seat and the cars are not carrying passengers. Additionally, Cruise's announcement has received an unusually large amount of backlash from my sources in the industry.
Cruise likes to point out that where its cars go, San Francisco has a high density of pedestrians, cyclists, and oddly parked vehicles. These characteristics make it a more challenging environment – Cruise claims "40 times more complex" – than the suburbs of Phoenix, where Waymo now operates its driverless commercial service.
But Cruise chose one of the less challenging areas of San Francisco for these tests. The Sunset District is a residential area on the westernmost edge of the city, south of Golden Gate Park. The wide streets are arranged in a regular grid and are less crowded and chaotic than those closer to the city center.
Critics point out that Cruise's video shows the vehicles being tested at night on roads that appear to be almost empty. One narrator says Cruise tested his cars "over and over", but all test shots show streets that look similar – and are similarly empty.
Nobody should blame Cruise for starting his quasi driverless tests in the least challenging times and in the least challenging places. However, without further details on Cruise's testing efforts, it's hard to judge how important the announcement really is.
Why I am skeptical
I learned to be skeptical of such claims after watching Waymo's progress over the past four years. Waymo announced the start of driverless testing in late 2017, but the company disclosed few details about where, when, and how often driverless tests were conducted. From his announcement, I got the impression that Waymo would soon move on to operating most of its vehicles without a safety driver and wrote an overly rosy story about it. "Driverless cars are here," I wrote.
In fact, the vast majority of Waymo's trips have had safety drivers for more than two years after that announcement. It wasn't until October 2020 that Waymo finally began allowing the general public to drive in driverless vehicles without signing nondisclosure agreements.
So, Cruise's announcement on Wednesday could mean that the company may be almost ready for commercial launch. But the announcement could also mean the company is a few years away from that point. Without further details, it's impossible to know for sure.
Like the rest of the industry, Cruise has had to reduce hyped expectations for its self-driving technology. At the end of 2017, Cruise announced that it would start a commercial taxi service by the end of 2019. Cruise did not meet this self-determined deadline and carefully did not announce a revised start date.
With Waymo's cars in action, Cruise will face increasing pressures to get to market. Cruise is also facing growing competition overseas. AutoX, a Chinese company backed by Alibaba, launched its own driverless tests in Shenzhen last week. And the Chinese search giant Baidu recently received approval to test its own vehicles without a safety driver in Beijing.