SAN FRANCISCO —
General Motors' self-driving car company will try to fulfill its long-term promise to offer a more environmentally friendly ride on an unorthodox vehicle designed to eliminate the need for human operators to transport people through crowded cities.
The service that is still being developed by GM's subsidiary, Cruise, will feature an electric vehicle, called "Origin", which was presented on Tuesday in San Francisco, amid much fanfare. It looks like a cross between a minivan and the SUV, with one huge exception – it won't have a steering wheel or brakes. Origin will accommodate up to four passengers at a time, although a single customer can invite you for a ride, just as people can now order a car with a human behind the wheel of Uber or Lyft.
Despite all the hype surrounding Origin's opening, Cruise omitted some important details, including when the ride service will be available and how many vehicles will be in its fleet. The company indicated that it will initially be available only in San Francisco, where Cruise already offers a free ride service only available to its approximately 1,000 employees.
By eliminating the need for a human to drive, Cruise will theoretically be able to offer a cheaper way to get around – a goal already being pursued by automotive pioneer Waymo, a Google spin-off that has been testing robotics in the Phoenix area for nearly three years.
Cruise planned to have a robotaxi service made up of Chevrolet Bolts working without human backup drivers by the end of 2019, but departed from that year after one of Uber's autonomous test vehicles ran over and killed a pedestrian in the Tempe suburb in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2018.
Still aware of the consequences of this deadly accident, Cruise is promising Cruise's "superhuman performance", which GM hopes to manufacture at half the price of comparable vehicles using fuel combustion engines. GM also hopes to announce where Origin will be made in the coming weeks, said Cruise CEO Dan Amman.
Origin will not be sold to consumers. "It is not a product that you can buy, but an experience that you share," said Amman.
Origin represents another significant step for Cruise, which had only 40 employees when GM bought it in 2016, as part of its effort to keep up with the race to build cars capable of driving. Since then, Cruise has attracted more than $ 6 billion from investors, including $ 2.75 billion from Honda and $ 2.25 billion from Japanese technology investment firm SoftBank. Honda also helped to develop the Origin.
GM currently values Cruise at $ 19 billion, fueling speculation that the subsidiary may eventually be spun off as a public company.
Whenever Cruise's ride service is launched, he will still be chasing Waymo, whose work on autonomous car technology began within Google more than a decade ago.
Waymo's service in the Phoenix area has taken more than 100,000 trips, according to the company. It expanded beyond the testing phase service 13 months ago, with a free ride app that now has about 1,500 active cyclists per month, says Waymo.
By comparison, ride leader Uber now has about 103 million active monthly users with a service that relies on human drivers – a dependency that is the main reason the company has been losing money throughout its history. Despite the fatal crash in 2018 that fueled the public's worst fears about self-driving cars, Uber is still trying to build a fleet of robotic taxis as part of its quest to become profitable.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk also promised that his company's electric cars will be able to drive without a human behind the wheel before the end of this year, so they can have fun as taxis when their owners don't need the vehicles, but analysts at sector doubt that promise will be realized.