General Motors and Cruise will be the first companies in the world to run a commercial taxi service of self-driving cars in a major city.
In a unanimous vote Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission approved Cruise’s final application to start the commercial ride-hailing business in San Francisco.
Cruise will use a fleet of 30 completely driverless all-electric Chevrolet Bolts to ferry passengers around parts of the city. Those Bolts are currently built at Orion Assembly plant in Orion Township.
“I support the resolution,” said Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma, adding that it will help the environment, improve safety and aid disadvantaged people in getting around. “It is a landmark resolution. We have taken a measured path to get to this point.”
Cruise is the San Francisco-based autonomous vehicle company of which GM owns an 80% stake.
“We received the first-ever Driverless Deployment Permit granted by the California Public Utilities Commission, which allows us to charge a fare for the driverless rides we are providing to members of the public here in San Francisco,” said Cruise COO Gil West in a blog statement. “This means that Cruise will be the first and only company to operate a commercial, driverless ride-hail service in a major U.S. city.”
The key is that this is the first commercial driverless taxi system in a major U.S. city. Waymo opened a fully autonomous commercial ride hail service to the public in October 2020 in suburban Chandler, Arizona.
A methodical rollout
A statement from the California Public Utilities Commission said with the permit, Cruise may offer passenger service to the general public in its fleet at a maximum speed of 30 mph, from the hours of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily “when weather conditions do not include heavy rain, heavy fog, heavy smoke, hail, sleet, or snow.”
If Cruise wants to change its driverless deployment operations in a way that materially affects the strategies outlined in the Passenger Safety Plan it gave the commission, it must submit an updated Passenger Safety Plan to the commission for approval. That would include any desire to expand the service hours, change the geography, roadway types, speed, or weather conditions of its operations.
Cruise and any other future self-driving taxi companies must prepare a report and presentation updating stakeholders on how the strategies in its safety plan have been used during pickup and drop-off events, as part of a future CPUC workshop.
“This is another exciting step for our autonomous vehicle program,” said CPUC President Alice Reynolds. “I look forward to further public engagement on the safe and equitable deployment of these innovative services as they mature through future reports and workshops.”
Earlier this year, Cruise started giving members of the public free rides in its driverless taxi service in San Francisco, which covers 70% of the city.
Now, Cruise will start charging a fare for the rides in the coming weeks, operating in the northwest part of San Francisco, said Cruise spokeswoman Hannah Lindow.
“We’ll begin rolling out fared rides gradually, expanding in alignment with the smoothest customer experience possible,” West said. “As always, our focus is on delivering a magical and safe service for our riders.”
Minutes after the commission approved the resolution, GM CEO Mary Barra tweeted: “What a huge milestone for AV technology that will improve life in our cities — congrats to the entire team!”
Cruise’s fare will be comparable and competitive with traditional ride-hailing services now, Lindow told the Free Press. According to Uber’s price estimates, the fare from downtown Detroit to Detroit Metropolitan Airport can range from $24 to $43 depending on the vehicle selected, traffic conditions and other factors.
Cruise will expand slowly and methodically across San Francisco and eventually elsewhere, while focusing on “giving the best customer experience possible,” Lindow said.
GM has grand ambitions for Cruise. In April, GM said it will spend $2 billion this year on Cruise operations. But Cruise’s Lindow is not confirming a time frame for when its autonomous taxi service will hit Detroit.
In a previous article, Cruise spokesman Aaron Mclear told the Free Press, “We are laser-focused on launching our ride-hail product in San Francisco and have announced Dubai as our first international market. But we have not announced any other future markets.”
While Cruise has not turned a profit yet, GM expects it will once it is operating as a self-driving ride-hail fleet. In October 2021, at GM’s Investor Day, then-Cruise CEO Dan Ammann said the target for the ride-hailing business was that it will reach $50 billion in revenue as it ramps up operations over the next eight years.
The electric self-driving vehicle Cruise will eventually operate is called the Origin, which GM developed as part of its partnership with Honda Motor Co. It is a boxy car with no steering wheel or gas pedal that is designed to carry multiple passengers as part of a ride-sharing fleet.
It will be made at Factory Zero in Detroit and Hamtramck starting in early 2023. GM presently makes the 2022 GMC Hummer EV pickup at Factory Zero and will soon start building the Hummer SUV and the 2024 Chevrolet Silverado pickup there next year.
During a four-year span, Reuters cited public records and reported that Cruise vehicles had 34 accidents involving bodily harm or over $1,000 in damage over nearly 3 million miles of driving through May 31.
Some concerns, as the vote came before the Utilities Commission, centered on comments from local officials who said a “confused Cruise AV briefly blocked a San Francisco fire engine in April that was en route to a three-alarm fire,” Reuters said. Also, in a popular video on social media, a driverless Cruise car was stopped by police earlier this year and it momentarily drove away from the officer.
Cruise has defended its safety track record as it tested the vehicles, noting that the cars can navigate complex situations and take safety actions.
“There were more than 20 positive comments that came in supporting Cruise’s permits,” Lindow said.
While Cruise has support from some disability groups and businesses, there were some fire, police and San Francisco transit workers who had expressed worry about safety and want state regulators to impose restrictions before allowing the self-driving cars to commercially taxi people around.
But the permit passed on Thursday includes stipulations that will require Cruise to collaborate with the city on an ongoing basis and share data to monitor ongoing passenger safety.
In February, GM and Cruise said they also filed a petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for permission to build and put the self-driving cars into commercial service. That remains under review.
In a blog post, Cruise’s Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Social Impact Rob Grant wrote: “NHTSA has made clear in public testimony and regulatory actions, that in order to consider the development of AV standards, they first need more information from real world AV operations. We believe this petition can help enable that outcome: learnings from the Origin, which is designed to improve overall road safety, can help inform the creation of new, updated regulations and standards.”
(This article has been edited to clarify that Cruise is the first to offer driverless taxis in a major U.S. city.)