Cruise, General Motors’ driverless car unit, is opening its Robotaxi service opened to the public in San Francisco, a development that led to an additional $1.35 billion investment from the SoftBank Vision Fund.
Cruise, which has been headquartered in San Francisco since its inception seven years ago, has been operating fully driverless vehicles in the city for several months, albeit only for its employees. On Tuesday, Kyle Vogt, co-founder and interim CEO, said the company is “making our driverless cars open to the public in San Francisco.”
There are a few caveats: Cruise doesn’t yet have approval to charge customers, and for now its service will only operate from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., with its “operating area” limited to the city’s northwest quadrant, an area to do so include Nob Hill, Sunset, Richmond and areas around Golden Gate Park.
For at least a few weeks, only a select group of employees’ family and friends and applicants nominated by Cruise are eligible to ride.
Still, the move puts the $30 billion company ahead of Waymo, which Driverless vehicle group owned by Alphabet which began more than a decade ago when it launched a driverless ride-hailing service in a major US city.
Waymo has been operating such a service in suburban Phoenix for more than two years, but the area is known for its predictably sunny weather and wide streets, while San Francisco is denser and more complicated.
Cruise is betting that its model of tackling more complicated cities first will allow it to “hurl to other markets more quickly,” the company said.
The announcement has triggered the release of additional funds from the SoftBank Vision Fund, which invested $900 million in Cruise for the first time in 2018. At the time, it agreed to add another $1.35 billion if Cruise began operating fully driverless cars — a goal it hoped to achieve in the summer of 2019.
GM CEO Mary Barra recently took a trip on a driverless cruise ship in San Francisco. She called the experience “surreal” and “a highlight” of her engineering career.
It is difficult to determine which company will win the race for full autonomy as the technology is proprietary, the business models differ and they typically operate in different jurisdictions. Waymo has indicated that it remains the only company offering a 24/7 fully driverless service to every member of the public.
Wolfe Research’s Rod Lache recently wrote that Cruise, Argo, Motional, Mobileye, and possibly Waymo are among the leaders in complex, dense urban centers, “although Waymo’s progress appears to have stalled, while Cruise and Argo appear to be ramping up quickly .” .
Wolfe estimates the total potential market for driverless ride-hailing at $8 trillion. It was also predicted that only four or five companies will ever be able to compete.
Tesla remains a dark horse, with quite a bit different Approach to autonomy than the Robotaxi groups. The electric vehicle company has no intention of running its own robotaxi service, but has a plan in which Tesla owners could do so lease their vehicles to a nationwide network of driverless cars.
In 2019, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company would operate 1 million robotic taxis by the end of 2020. So far it has none. But Musk said last week that its “fully self-driving” technology would be “solved” this year.
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