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GM’s Cruise To Rebuild Outside San Francisco, Without Origin

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Leaks from General Motors’ Cruise robotaxi unit reveal some of their plan to rebuild after their failure in San Francisco may involve working in another state like Texas or Arizona, and to continue the pause on deploying their custom-designed robotaxi known as the Origin. While painful, this plan makes a lot of sense in their current state.

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Earlier, Cruise suffered a long series of setbacks leading to them being pulled from the streets of California, voluntarily halting service in other states and the eventual resignation of their founder/CEO.

Cruise built itself in San Francisco. It’s an obvious choice, given that they company was founded there and their staff live there. It also presents a challenging, but not impossible driving environment where cars can learn most of what they need to drive in any city, but at the same time has no snow to make the task a bit easier. Cruise invested a lot in San Francisco and the idea that it was a great place to learn the ropes.

Politically, it was not at all friendly, and Cruise became quickly at odds with city officials who, though they do not have jurisdiction over driving, wanted it out. To a lesser degree they also wanted Silicon Valley native Waymo out, too.

Cruise also quickly announced plans, and even began production, on a custom vehicle designed to be only a robotaxi. Waymo and most other companies do their service in modified standard cards, though Amazon’s Zoox unit intends to begin with a somewhat similar custom vehicle as well. Making cars is what GM does, of course, so for Cruise this was a natural exploitation of their parent’s skills After Cruise lost their permits, GM paused production on the Origin and this now seems to be indefinite, and Cruise will work to get a robotaxi service working with the regular GM cars (today the Chevy Bolt) they already use.

These are not permanent decisions—Cruise certainly intends to return to SF and to build the Origin—but they are correct decisions for now.

Right Decisions

Even though Cruise says it wants to rebuild trust, and may put a fair bit of effort into that, they have a tough task to do this in San Francisco. SF is biased against it and will continue to be biased against it for some time. Even though they don’t have jurisdiction, they are not without power and influence.

The harsh reality is that SF, though often seen as the world capital of technology, is also sometimes quite the opposite. When the Segway scooter was introduced, the company made a big effort to reach out to towns to make sure it would be legal in them. SF was one of the very few places to ban it before it seriously arrived.

When we were building the Starship delivery robot, we planned to move the company HQ to San Francisco. Then a city supervisor decided to go on a campaign to effectively ban sidewalk delivery robots, and passed laws restricted them where other cities were passing laws to welcome them. Starship elected not to move to SF.

So San Francisco may not, in spite of its many advantages, be a good place to begin. Certainly operating far from where most staff work is a challenge, both in terms of cost, and in giving up the opportunity for all staff to live and work with the product on a regular basis. And indeed, due to the DMV restricting Cruise, the rest of California may not be immediately favorable, though it can’t be avoided in the long term.

While Cruise has had much better relations with the public and governments in Texas and Arizona where it has also deployed, the situation has not been perfect. And obviously people will ask there, “If it got banned in California, why should we want it here?” They must still be answered, as does California, but that answer will be easier to give.

Pausing the Origin is easier. While Waymo is developing a custom robotaxi with Geely Zeekr, it is much more car-like. You can do most of what you need for a long time in regular cars, and if you have to prioritize that’s what you do. It’s a long time before having a custom vehicle like the Origin, Zoox or Waymo/Zeekr will be an important competitive difference. Indeed it’s a long time before competition is a major factor.

There are a few attributes to the Origin that Cruise will miss, though. The first is the ability to serve the disabled. This is a good thing to do, and required by law once you get to real deployment, and it’s likely to improve pubic appraisal of the value of the service—look good by actually doing some good.

Another ability which the Origin did not strictly have is the ability to drive backwards. The Zoox has no front or back, so if it faces a situation where it needs to turn around, it doesn’t need to turn—it just switches direction. This turns out to me more important than initially expected, because it’s a good option when a vehicle encounters a situation like an emergency scene or vehicle, a closed road or any other such problem. Now it is possible for a regular vehicle to drive backwards, as long as it can have red brake lights on the front and white headlights on the back at night. It would be a bit confusing to others on the road (in a way the Zoox would not, since it lacks a front or back.) To avoid that confusion, a vehicle can just reverse until it sees a good spot to quickly do a 3 point turn in a driveway or similar. Electric cars are usually able to go full speed in reverse. If Cruise vehicles had the means to just quickly get back out when they encountered emergency scenes, they might not have angered the SF Fire Department so much.

The final ability of the Origin is that it’s better at delivering a shared ride to a group, like UberPool style rides. This isn’t something companies will do on day one, but it’s their long term answer to those critics who worry that “this is just more private cars clogging the streets.” Unlike UberPool, which had trouble getting riders to accept detours to pick up other people, Robotaxis, when combined with single person pods and minimobility vehicles can create a much more appealing service that customers would like, particularly with the lower prices.

Waymo will become the known brand in San Francisco, but it is so early in the game that they won’t get any monopoly over the next year. There is great debate over how big the first mover advantage really is in the robotaxi space. Of course Waymo also plans to deploy in some of the Texas towns that Cruise has been serving, so they will be competitors of a sorts, but both with fleets too small to saturate the market.

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