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Uh-oh Uber, Look Out Lyft: Here Comes Driverless Ride Sharing

Cruise unveils the Origin, a fully autonomous SUV designed for app-controlled urban transportation

2 min read
Image of Cruise Origin in San Francisco, with passengers inside and another approaching
Image: Cruise

Yesterday I drove from Silicon Valley to San Francisco. It started raining on the way and I hadn’t thought to take an umbrella. No matter—I had the locations of two parking garages, just a block or so from my destination, preloaded into my navigation app. But both were full, and I found myself driving in stop-and-go traffic around crowded, wet, hilly, construction-heavy San Francisco, hunting for street parking or an open garage for nearly an hour. It was driving hell.

So when I finally arrived at a launch event hosted by Cruise, I couldn’t have been more receptive to the company’s pitch for Cruise Origin, a new vehicle that, Cruise executives say, intends to make it so I won’t need to drive or park in a city ever again.

Cruise Origin is a six-passenger, autonomous, electric, SUV-sized vehicle intended to disrupt not so much the car industry as urban transportation overall. Cruise does not plan to offer the Origin on the retail market. Instead, it will operate fleets of the vehicles as a ride-sharing service; screens inside are intended to give information about upcoming pick ups and drop offs.

Uber, which launched the last big transportation disruption and has been preparing for the next by investing in its own autonomous vehicle research, might have some scrambling to do.

Interior of the Cruise OriginPhoto: Tekla Perry

Since the Origin won’t be sold, the company isn’t talking about pricing. However, Cruise CEO Dan Ammann did talk a lot about what the designers did to make this autonomous vehicle as inexpensive as possible to manufacture—production costs will be about half of those required to make today’s all-electric SUVs, he said. The designers started with a new, all-electric platform, made all the sensor and computer systems modular for easy replacement and upgrading, and took out everything driver-related, including rearview mirrors, windshield wipers, and, of course, the steering wheel.

Besides reducing costs, those omissions left room for a big passenger compartment. I do have one quibble with the design, though: in the display vehicle, passengers faced each other in two rows of seats with lots of room in between. While this arrangement might be great for Vegas party limos, those of us who are motion sensitive need to face the front and have good sight lines in the direction of travel. And, frankly, even if I weren’t motion sensitive, I don’t necessarily want to spend my travel time making awkward eye contact with a stranger.

Cruise CEO surounded by reportersCruise CEO Dan Ammann fields questions about the new Cruise Origin.Photo: Tekla Perry

“It costs a lot less to make than you would expect, it will last a million miles, and you can share it,” Ammann said, justifying the company’s estimate that the average urban dweller who relies on Cruise Origin for transportation will cut about US $5,000 a year from their personal transportation costs. “The key to making money is making a better user experience at a lower cost.”

The vehicle is “fully engineered and on its way to production,” Ammann said. Operating it as a driverless service still needs government approvals, however.

A version of this post appears in the March 2020 print issue as “Here Comes Driverless Ride Sharing.”

The Conversation (0)

We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images
Green

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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