GM Demos Robocars in San Francisco

GM's Cruise subsidiary is tackling a tougher road environment than Waymo faced, but it's keeping a driver behind the wheel

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GM and Cruise Automation's Bolt EV self-driving car in San Francisco on November 28, 2017.
Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

Cruise Automation, the self-driving subsidiary of General Motors, has taken  observers on rides in a more challenging environment than rival Waymo chose for a similar demonstration a few weeks ago.

On Tuesday, Cruise sent a few select journalists through the busy streets of San Francisco. Today, it sent investment analysts as well. Waymo, for its part, conducted its first public rides at a test facility and soon afterward, in the sedate suburban streets of Chandler, Ariz.

Cruise deployed versions of GM’s Chevrolet Bolt, an all-electric car that can drive an impressively long way on a single charge. Waymo’s Arizona pilot relies instead on the Chrysler Pacifica.

But though GM’s Cruise took on a big city, that doesn’t mean it’s in the lead. There’s also the question of safety: Cruise felt the need to plant safety drivers behind the wheel, whereas Waymo recently relegated them to the back seat.

And in Tuesday’s test, one Cruise’s safety driver had to take the wheel to get around a taco truck that was blocking the way forward.

What is notable is GM’s cockiness. The first fruits of commercialization will come in “quarters, not years,” as GM chief executive Mary Barra put it a month ago. And not only will it come soon—apparently it will come without baby steps. 

“We’re not going to do small-scale pilots,” Cruise chief executive Kyle Vogt told TechCrunch on Tuesday. “We’re not going to launch a ride hailing pilot where you’ve got drivers still in the car.”

It isn’t clear what Waymo and GM intend to achieve in the short term. It is simply incredible that either company’s robocar service could turn a profit soon, and if a project doesn’t make money, it would seem to qualify as a pilot. Maybe the two companies are just trying to keep their promises.

Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google and a moving spirit behind the project that became Waymo, famously predicted that his cars would carry real passengers by 2017. Perhaps he told Waymo to make it so.

And Mary Barra has been emphasizing both electric drive and autonomous technology in an effort to transcend her company’s image as an industry dinosaur. GM went through bankruptcy a decade ago only to get hit on the head with a safety scandal involving ignition-key problems.

Or maybe, just maybe, the object in the mirror is closer than it appears.

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