Cruise unveils Origin, an electric driverless vehicle designed for sharing

Cruise unveiled Tuesday evening a “production ready” driverless vehicle called Origin, the product of a multi-year collaboration with parent company GM and investor Honda that is designed for a ride-sharing service.

The shuttle-like vehicle — branded with Cruise’s trademark orange and black colors — has no steering wheel or pedals and is designed to travel at highway speeds. The interior is roomy with seats that face each other, similar to what a traveler might find on some trains. Each seat is meant to accommodate the needs of an individual with personal USB ports, CTO and co-founder Kyle Vogt noted during the presentation. Digital displays are located above, presumably to give travelers information about their rides.

The doors don’t hinge outward, Vogt added. Instead, he said, “they slide open, so bikers are safer.”

cruise inside

CEO Dan Ammann stressed that the vehicle is not a concept, but instead is a production vehicle that the company intends to use for a ride-sharing service.

However, don’t expect the Origin to be on public roads anytime soon. The driverless vehicle doesn’t meet U.S. federal regulations known as FMVSS, which specify design, construction, performance and durability requirements for motor vehicles.

For now, the Origin will be used on private, closed environments such as GM facilities in Michigan or even Honda’s campus outside of the U.S, Ammann said in an interview after the presentation.

Cruise Origin

Cruise unveiled Tuesday Origin, a driverless shuttle designed for ride-sharing.

Ammann also emphasized the low cost of the vehicle, which he added is designed to operate 1 million miles.

“We’ve been just as obsessed with making the Origin experience as inexpensive as possible,” Ammann said while on stage.Because if we’re really serious about improving life, and our cities, we need huge numbers of people to use the Cruise origin. And that won’t happen unless we deliver on a very simple proposition, a better experience at a lower price than what you pay to get around today.”

GM will manufacture the vehicle, although Ammann wouldn’t provide more details on where except to say “you’ll find out in a couple of days.” He did say that the vehicle will be produced “for roughly half the cost of what a conventional electric SUV costs today.”

The reveal offered more clues about Cruise’s hardware development, which has been growing in the past 18 months under the leadership of its vice president of hardware Carl Jenkins and Brendan Hermalyn, director of autonomous hardware systems.

The vehicle is outfitted with what Vogt called an “owl,” a hybrid sensor assembly that seems to combine camera and radar.

Still, there remains a number of questions from when and where the Origin will deploy to what Ammann means by manufacture at “scale,” and what rides will cost.

Cruise doubles down on hardware

Ten months ago, Cruise declared it would hire at least 1,000 engineers by the end of the year, an aggressive target — even for a company with a $7.25 billion war chest — in the cutthroat autonomous vehicle industry, where startups, automakers and tech giants are battling over talent.

What Cruise didn’t talk about then — or since — was who it planned to hire. The assumption was that Cruise was aiming for software engineers, the perception, planning and controls, simulation and mapping experts who would help build the “brain” of its self-driving cars. And that has certainly been one objective.

Cruise, a subsidiary of GM that also has backing from SoftBank Vision Fund, automaker Honda and T. Rowe Price & Associates, now employs more than 1,700 people, a considerable chunk of whom are software engineers.

Cruise has embarked on another initiative over the past 18 months that isn’t as well known. The company is building out a team of hardware engineers so large that, if successful, it will get its own building. Today, the first fruits of that mission are toiling away in an ever-expanding lab located in the basement of Cruise’s Bryant Street building in San Francisco. 

The basement won’t hold them for long — if Cruise gets its way. The company plans to dedicate the Bryant Street location, a 140,000-square-foot building that once served as its headquarters, to the hardware team, according to sources familiar with Cruise’s plans.

Some software engineers will remain at Bryant Street. But the bulk of Cruise’s software team and other employees will move to 333 Brannan Street, the former Dropbox headquarters that the company took over in 2019.

Cruise wouldn’t provide specific employment numbers for its hardware or software teams. A glimpse at its current job openings, as well as other resources such as LinkedIn, suggests that it has amassed more than 300 employees dedicated to hardware. At least 10% of those people were hired in the past 90 days, according to a review of LinkedIn’s database. 

And it’s not done hiring. There are more than 160 open positions posted on Cruise’s website. About 106 are for software-related jobs and 35 are for hardware engineers. The remaining 24 positions are for other departments, including government, communications, office and security.

Hardware HQ

Below the airy, sunlit dining hall and the garage that houses Cruise’s self-driving test vehicles, hundreds of hardware engineers are developing everything from sensors and network systems to the compute and infotainment system for its present and future vehicles.

The upshot: Cruise is developing hardware as aggressively as its software with an eye toward future vehicles. The world will likely get the first glimpse of that future-looking hardware handiwork at Cruise’s “Beyond the Car” event that will be held late Tuesday in San Francisco. 

Cruise’s value has largely been wrapped up in its software. Even six years ago, when the company was founded with a plan to develop an aftermarket kit that could be retrofitted to existing cars to give them automated highway driving capabilities, Cruise was a software company.

GM’s venture team had been tracking Cruise since early 2014, according to sources familiar with the company’s early history. But it wouldn’t be until Cruise abandoned its aftermarket kit to focus on developing an autonomous vehicle capable of city driving that the relationship would bloom.

It was then that Cruise realized it needed deeper expertise in integrating hardware and software. By late 2015, talks with GM had progressed beyond fact-finding. GM announced it acquired Cruise in March 2016.

With GM as its parent, Cruise suddenly had access to a manufacturing giant. GM’s Chevrolet Bolt EV would become the platform Cruise would use for its self-driving test vehicles. Today, Cruise has about 180 test vehicles, most of which can be seen on public roads in San Francisco.

Cruise has always employed hardware engineers. But a more focused effort on hardware development and systems integration began in early 2018 after Cruise hired Carl Jenkins as vice president of hardware and Brendan Hermalyn as director of autonomous hardware systems.

Around the same time, GM announced it would build production versions of the Cruise AV — a vehicle that would be built from the ground up to operate on its own with no driver, steering wheel, pedals or manual controls — at its Orion Township assembly plant in Michigan. Roof modules for the self-driving vehicles would be assembled at its Brownstown plant. The automaker said it would invest $100 million in the two Michigan plants to prepare for production. GM’s Orion factory already produces the Chevy Bolt EV and the third-generation test versions of Cruise’s autonomous vehicle.

Six months later, the companies announced that Honda would commit $2.75 billion as part of an exclusive agreement with GM and Cruise to develop and produce a new kind of autonomous vehicle.

Systems approach

Systems integration would become more important than ever. Hermalyn, who previously worked as the camera lead at Waymo, is one of the primary drivers of this pursuit.

To say Hermalyn is passionate about systems integration might be an understatement. In an hour-long interview last year, he frequently leaned on the term, exclaiming at one point, while standing amongst a row of test vehicles, that the “most exciting thing is the integration.” He has also published a blog post that describes Cruise’s philosophy and approach to building a system that can conduct real-time, safety-critical sensing and perception tasks at scale. 

The ability to integrate hardware and software is critical for the safe operation of autonomous vehicles, and it is a common pursuit among AV developers. But the scale of Cruise’s effort, along with the fact that the team is developing much of these hardware components in house, illustrates how important this area has become for the company.

Cruise hardware development is focused on the entire AV topology, which includes the sensors, compute, network systems, connectivity, infotainment and UX.

A Cruise autonomous vehicle Saturday, January 12, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Stephen Brashear for Cruise)

While Cruise does some early-stage manufacturing in house, Hermalyn stressed that Cruise isn’t trying to go it alone.

“We’re lucky to have General Motors and Honda as partners,” he said during TechCrunch’s interview with him in October. “We’re able to leverage their expertise in vehicle engineering, and collaborate with them throughout the development process to seamlessly integrate that AV topology into the completed vehicles assembled on the factory production line.”

The baffle on the camera system on Cruise’s vehicle is just one tiny example of this partnership developed with GM. It’s here that a self-cleaning system has been developed and installed. Other hardware development included a bumper that better integrates sensors, mounts and lidar. Cruise acquired lidar startup Strobe in 2017.

“Our goal is to make it the fastest, not to make everything,” Hermalyn later added. “We obviously use a supplier to manufacture them, we don’t want to have the Geppetto problem where we’re stuck making one by one.”

Back in October when TechCrunch visited Cruise’s office, the basement lab was in flux. Certain areas were jammed and preparations to expand had clearly begun.

That lab build-out has continued. The hardware team is particularly focused on sensor development and is conducting some “low volume manufacturing capabilities for rapid maturation of hardware,” he said in a followup email.

“It’s not that different from what the aerospace industry has done,” Hermalyn said of the systems approach. But how you solve that I think is the unique part. With our partners, we’re able to go after these systems problems and be able to address that in the marketplace.”

Tesla calls claims of unintended acceleration in NHTSA petition “completely false”

Tesla pushed back Monday against claims that its electric vehicles may suddenly accelerate on their own, calling a petition filed with federal safety regulators “completely false.”

Tesla also questions the validity of the petition, noting that it was submitted by a Tesla short-seller.

Last week, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration said it would review a defect petition that cited 127 consumer complaints of alleged unintended acceleration of Tesla electric vehicles that may have contributed to or caused 110 crashes and 52 injuries.

The petition, which was first reported by CNBC, was filed by Brian Sparks, an independent investor who is currently shorting Tesla’s stock. Sparks has hedged his bets and has been long Tesla in the past, according to the CNBC report.

At the time, Tesla didn’t respond to requests for comment. Now, in a blog post, the company said that it routinely reviews customer complaints of unintended acceleration with NHTSA.

“In every case we reviewed with them, the data proved the vehicle functioned properly,” Tesla wrote in a blog post on its website.

The automaker argued that its vehicles are designed to avoid unintended acceleration, noting that its system will default to cutting off motor torque if the two independent position sensors on its accelerator pedals register any error.

“We also use the Autopilot sensor suite to help distinguish potential pedal misapplications and cut torque to mitigate or prevent accidents when we’re confident the driver’s input was unintentional,” the company wrote.

Here is the complete response from Tesla:

This petition is completely false and was brought by a Tesla short-seller. We investigate every single incident where the driver alleges to us that their vehicle accelerated contrary to their input, and in every case where we had the vehicle’s data, we confirmed that the car operated as designed. In other words, the car accelerates if, and only if, the driver told it to do so, and it slows or stops when the driver applies the brake.

While accidents caused by a mistaken press of the accelerator pedal have been alleged for nearly every make/model of vehicle on the road, the accelerator pedals in Model S, X and 3 vehicles have two independent position sensors, and if there is any error, the system defaults to cut off motor torque. Likewise, applying the brake pedal simultaneously with the accelerator pedal will override the accelerator pedal input and cut off motor torque, and regardless of the torque, sustained braking will stop the car. Unique to Tesla, we also use the Autopilot sensor suite to help distinguish potential pedal misapplications and cut torque to mitigate or prevent accidents when we’re confident the driver’s input was unintentional. Each system is independent and records data, so we can examine exactly what happened.

We are transparent with NHTSA, and routinely review customer complaints of unintended acceleration with them. Over the past several years, we discussed with NHTSA the majority of the complaints alleged in the petition. In every case we reviewed with them, the data proved the vehicle functioned properly.

Cruise calls for a new way to determine commercial readiness of self-driving cars

Cruise co-founder and CTO Kyle Vogt said Friday that disengagement reports released annually by California regulators are not a proxy for the commercial readiness or safety of self-driving cars.

Vogt, in a lengthy post on Medium, called for a new metric to determine whether an autonomous vehicle is ready for commercial deployment. The post suggests that the autonomous vehicle company, which had a valuation of $19 billion as of May, is already developing more comprehensive metrics.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles, which regulates the permits for autonomous vehicle testing on public roads in the state, requires companies to submit an annual report detailing “disengagements,” a term that means the number of times drivers have had to take control of a car. The DMV defines a disengagement as any time a test vehicle operating on public roads has switched from autonomous to manual mode for an immediate safety-related reason or due to a failure of the system. 

“It’s woefully inadequate for most uses beyond those of the DMV,” Vogt wrote. “The idea that disengagements give a meaningful signal about whether an AV is ready for commercial deployment is a myth.”

These disengagement reports will be released in a few weeks. Cruise did share some of its disengagement data, specifically the number of miles driven per disengagement event, between 2017 and 2019.

cruise disengagement data 2019

The so-called race to commercialize autonomous vehicles has involved a fair amount of theater, including demos. This lack of data has made it nearly impossible to determine if a company’s self-driving cars are safe enough or ready for the big and very real stage of shuttling people from Point A to Point B on city streets. Disengagement reports — as flawed as they might be — have been one of the only pieces of data that the public, and the media, have access to.

How safe is safe enough?

While that data might provide some insights, it doesn’t help answer the fundamental question for every AV developer planning to deploy robotaxis for the public: “How safe is safe enough?”

Vogt’s comments signal Cruise’s efforts to find a practical means of answering that question.

But if we can’t use the disengagement rate to gauge commercial readiness, what can we use? Ultimately, I believe that in order for an AV operator to deploy AVs at scale in a ridesharing fleet, the general public and regulators deserve hard, empirical evidence that an AV has performance that is super-human (better than the average human driver) so that the deployment of the AV technology has a positive overall impact on automotive safety and public health.
This requires a) data on the true performance of human drivers and AVs in a given environment and b) an objective, apples-to-apples comparison with statistically significant results. We will deliver exactly that once our AVs are validated and ready for deployment. Expect to hear more from us about this very important topic soon.

Competitors agree

Cruise is hardly the only company to question the disengagement reports, although this might be the most strongly worded and public call to date. Waymo told TechCrunch that it takes a similar view.

The reports have long been a source of angst among AV developers. The reports do provide information that can be useful to the public, such as number of vehicles testing on public roads. But it’s hardly a complete picture of any company’s technology.

The reports are wildly different; each company provides varying amounts of information, all in different formats. There is also disagreement over what is and what is not a disengagement. For instance, this issue got more attention in 2018 when Jalopnik questioned an incident involving a Cruise vehicle. In that case, a driver took manual control of the wheel as it passed through an intersection, but it wasn’t reported as a disengagement. Cruise told Jalopnik at the time that it didn’t meet the standard for California regulations.

The other issue is that disengagements don’t provide an “apples to apples” comparison of technology, as these test vehicles operate in a variety of environments and conditions.

Disengagements also often rise and fall along with the scale of testing. Waymo, for instance, told TechCrunch that its disengagements will likely increase as it scales up its testing in California.

And finally, more companies are using simulation or virtual testing instead of sending fleets of cars on public roads to test every new software build. Aurora, another AV developer, emphasizes its use of its virtual testing suite. The disengagement reports don’t include any of that data.

Vogt’s post also called out the industry for conducting carefully “curated demo routes that avoid urban areas with cyclists and pedestrians, constrain geofences and pickup/dropoff locations, and limit the kinds of maneuvers the AV will attempt during the ride.”

The shot could be interpreted as a shot at Waymo, which has recently conducted driverless demos on public streets in Chandler, Ariz. with reporters. TechCrunch was one of the first to have a driverless ride last year. However, demos are common practice among many other self-driving vehicle startups, and are particularly popular around events like CES. Cruise has conducted at least one demo, which was with the press in 2017.

Vogt suggested that raw, unedited drive footage that “covers long stretches of driving in real world situations” is hard to fake and a more qualitative indicator of technology maturity.

Trucks VC general partner Reilly Brennan is coming to TC Sessions: Mobility

The future of transportation industry is bursting at the seams with startups aiming to bring everything from flying cars and autonomous vehicles to delivery bots and even more efficient freight to roads.

One investor who is right at the center of this is Reilly Brennan, founding general partner of Trucks VC, a seed-stage venture capital fund for entrepreneurs changing the future of transportation.

TechCrunch is excited to announce that Brennan will join us on stage for TC Sessions: Mobility.

In case you missed last year’s event, TC Sessions: Mobility is a one-day conference that brings together the best and brightest engineers, investors, founders and technologists to talk about transportation and what is coming on the horizon. The event will be held May 14, 2020 in the California Theater in San Jose, Calif.

Brennan is known as much for his popular FoT newsletter as his investments, which include May Mobility, Nauto, nuTonomy, Joby Aviation, Skip and Roadster.

Stay tuned to see who we’ll announce next.

And … $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.

Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.

Foxconn and Fiat Chrysler partner to develop EVs and an “internet of vehicles” business

Foxconn Technology Group, the Taiwanese electronics giant best known for its iPhone manufacturing contract, is forming a joint venture with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to build electric vehicles in China.

The joint venture was disclosed in a regulatory filing. Nikkei was first to report the joint venture.

According to the filing, each party will own 50% of the venture to develop and manufacture electric vehicles and engage in an IOV, what Foxconn parent company Hon Hai calls the “internet of vehicles” business. Hon Hai’s direct shareholding in the subsidiary will not exceed 40%, the filing says.

The venture will initially focus on making electric vehicles for China. But these vehicles could be exported at a later date, according to Foxconn.

The wording in the regulatory filing suggests these will be new vehicles that are designed and built from the ground up and not a project to electrify any of the vehicles in FCA’s current portfolio.

The venture could give FCA a better path to capturing more business in China, the world’s largest market for electric vehicles.

Foxconn has invested in other electric vehicle ventures before, although this appears to be the first tie-up in which the company will develop and build the product. EV startup Byton was originally started as Future Mobility Corporation as a joint venture between Harmony Auto, Tencent and Foxconn. And Foxconn is also an investor in XPeng Motors, the Chinese electric vehicle startup that recently raised a fresh injection of $400 million in capital and has taken on Xiaomi  as a strategic investor.

Mobileye takes aim at Waymo

Mobileye has built a multi-billion-dollar business supplying automakers with computer vision technology that powers advanced driver assistance systems. It’s a business that last year generated nearly $1 billion in sales for the company. Today, 54 million vehicles on the road are using Mobileye’s computer vision technology.

In 2018, the company made what many considered a bold and risky move when it expanded its focus beyond being a mere supplier to becoming a robotaxi operator. The upshot: Mobileye wants to compete directly with the likes of Waymo and other big players aiming to deploy commercial robotaxi services.

TechCrunch sat down with Amnon Shashua, Mobileye’s president and CEO and Intel senior vice president, to find out why and how — yep, acquisitions are in the future — the company will hit its mark.

NextNav raises $120M to deploy its indoor positioning tech to find people in skyscrapers

NextNav LLC has raised $120 million in equity and debt to commercially deploy an indoor positioning system that can pinpoint a device’s location — including which floor it’s on — without GPS .

The company has developed what it calls a Metropolitan Beacon System, which can find the location of devices like smartphones, drones, IoT products or even self-driving vehicles in indoor and urban areas where GPS or other satellite location signals cannot be reliably received. Anyone trying to use their phone to hail an Uber or Lyft in the Loop area of Chicago has likely experienced spotty GPS signals.

The MBS infrastructure is essentially bolted onto cellular towers. The positioning system uses a cellular signal, not line-of-sight signal from satellites like GPS does. The system focuses on determining the “altitude” of a device, CEO and co-founder Ganesh Pattabiraman told TechCrunch.

GPS can provide the horizontal position of a smartphone or IoT device. And Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can step in to provide that horizontal positioning indoors. NextNav says its MBS has added a vertical or “Z dimension” to the positioning system. This means the MBS can determine within less than three meters the floor level of a device in a  multi-story building.

It’s the kind of system that can provide emergency services with critical information, such as the number of people located on a particular floor. It’s this specific use case that NextNav is betting on. Last year, the Federal Communication Commission issued new 911 emergency requirements for wireless carriers that mandates the ability to determine the vertical position of devices to help responders find people in multi-story buildings.

Today, the MBS is in the Bay Area and Washington, D.C. The company plans to use this new injection of capital to expand its network to the 50 biggest markets in the U.S., in part to take advantage of the new FCC requirement.

The technology has other applications. For instance, this so-called Z dimension could come in handy for locating drones. Last year, NASA said it will use NextNav’s MBS network as part of its City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation facilities at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

The round was led by funds managed by affiliates of Fortress Investment Group . Existing investors Columbia Capital, Future Fund, Telcom Ventures, funds managed by Goldman Sachs Asset Management, NEA and Oak Investment Partners also participated.

XM Satellite Radio founder Gary Parsons is executive chairman of the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company.

Waymo’s Anca Dragan and Ike Robotics CTO Jur van den Berg are coming to TC Sessions: Robotics+AI

The road to “solving” self-driving cars is riddled with challenges from perception and decision making to figuring out the interaction between human and robots.

Today we’re announcing that joining us at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI on March 3 at UC Berkeley are two experts who play important roles in the development and deployment of autonomous vehicle technology: Anca Dragan and Jur van den Berg.

Dragan is assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s electrical engineering and computer sciences department as well as a senior research scientist and consultant for Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that is now a business under Alphabet. She runs the InterACT Lab at UC-Berkeley, which focuses on on algorithms for human-robot interaction. Dragan also helped found and serve on the steering committee for the Berkeley AI Research Lab, and is co-PI of the Center for Human-Compatible AI.

Last year, Dragan was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Van den Berg is the co-founder and CTO of Ike Robotics, a self-driving truck startup that last year raised $52 million in a Series A funding round led by Bain Capital  Ventures. Van den Berg has been part of the most important, secretive and even controversial companies in the autonomous vehicle technology industry. He was a senior researcher and developer in Apple’s special projects group, before jumping to self-driving trucks startup Otto. He became a senior autonomy engineer at Uber after the ride-hailing company acquired Otto .

All of this led to Ike, which was founded in 2018 with Nancy Sun and Alden Woodrow, who were also veterans of Apple, Google and Uber Advanced Technologies Group’s self-driving truck program

TC Sessions: Robotics+AI returns to Berkeley on March 3. Make sure to grab your early-bird tickets today for $275 before prices go up by $100. Students, grab your tickets for just $50 here.

Startups, book a demo table right here and get in front of 1,000+ of Robotics/AI’s best and brightest — each table comes with four attendee tickets.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2020: Boris Sofman of Waymo and Nancy Sun of Ike

You have might heard: a mobility revolution is in the making. TechCrunch is here for it — and we’re not just along for the ride. We’re here to uncover new ideas and startups, root out vaporware and dig into the tech and people spurring this change.

In short, we’re helping drive the conversation around mobility. And it’s only fitting we have an event dedicate to the topic. TC Sessions: Mobility — a one-day event on May 14, 2020 in San Jose, Calif., that’s centered around the future of mobility and transportation— is back for a second year and we’re already putting together a fantastic group of the brightest engineers, investors, founders and technologists.

TechCrunch is excited to announce our first two guests for TC Sessions: Mobility.

Drum roll, please …..

We’re excited that Boris Sofman, engineering director at Waymo and former co-founder and CEO of Anki, will join us on stage. But wait there’s more. TechCrunch is also announcing Nancy Sun, the co-founder and chief engineer of Ike Robotics, will be a guest at TC Sessions: Mobility.

Here’s a bit about these bright and accomplished people.

Sofman is leading the engineering for trucking at Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that is now a business under Alphabet. Sofman came to Waymo from consumer robotics company Anki, which shut down in April 2019. Nearly the entire technical team at Anki headed over to Waymo and

Anki built several popular products, starting with Anki Drive in 2013 and later the popular Cozmo robot. The Bay Area-startup had shipped more than 3.5 million devices with annual revenues approaching $100 million.

Previously, Sofman worked on off-road autonomous vehicles and ways to leverage machine learning approach to improve navigational capabilities in real-time.

Sun has also had an incredibly interesting ride in the world of automated and robotics. She is chief engineer and co-founder of Ike, the self-driving truck startup. Prior to Ike, Sun was the senior engineering manager of self-driving trucks at Uber ATG, a company she came to through the acquisition of Otto .

Prior to Otto, Sun was engineering manager of Apple’s secretive special projects group.

Stay tuned to see who we’ll announce next.

$250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9 when you book today.

Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.